Homeless in Penang


“I have been living on the streets for 15 years. Society does not want me anymore – they say that I’m too old. If I’m caught by the Welfare Department, they will put me away for three years or send me to an old folks’ home, where there is no freedom. Here, I can do anything I wish. I don’t need much. As long as I have my freedom and food, what else do I need? Moreover, at this age, I can ‘go’ any time.” – Uncle Bob (67 years old, born in Penang)

Penang is perceived as a food paradise, a world-class tourist destination and the all- round place to be. George Town is the cultural heart of the island state. But underneath her beauty and vibrancy lies the sight that many still choose to ignore: the destitute and the homeless.

In 2012, the destitute and homeless in Penang numbered at 288. This was a sharp drop from a staggering 445 in 20091. The majority of them are between 45 and 65 years old. According to Kechara Soup Kitchen (KSK) programme director Patsy Gooi and the Social Welfare Department ( JKM) many senior citizens often choose to live on the street because of familial discords or because there is no one to take care of them.

Uncle Syed, 43, is testimony of this. “I came to Penang looking for a job. My family never came looking for me. I hope to get a room with government help. People scold me (on the streets), but what can I do?”

The homeless senior citizens we spoke to said that they were content with their life, although this was obviously not their first lifestyle choice. “I have no energy to make life better. I am happy as I am,” said Uncle Sun, 66.

That being said, they do recognise that a proper residence is vital to a sense of comfort, safety, security and stability, and permits them to be part of a community. They also know how diffcult it is for them to obtain those things. “I’m looking for a room now, but it is not easy. A small room costs about RM200. I get only RM300 in welfare aid,” said Uncle Bon, 67.

What is sadder is that the homeless aren’t just limited to adults – Penang alone has some 40 homeless children. The majority of them are listed as refugees under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and were rescued by JKM in 2012.

In KL, the a raction of bright lights and wealth draw many young people to seek work there. Mostly secondary school dropouts, they often end up working in labour-intensive jobs, and after months of work, are not paid their promised salary. “They end up homeless and unable to live a basic life, and get drawn into illegal activities,” said Ananti, a social worker for the KL-based NGO Yayasan Chow Kit (YCK). “Many girls become pregnant and abandon their babies as they are afraid of being punished for being pregnant out of wedlock.” 

It becomes clear that the issue of homelessness is not as simple as not having a place to live. The lack of stable jobs and the inhumane acts of others push one to live on the streets. Once made homeless, redemption is difficult; securing a job becomes harder, and one is subject to mockery and discrimination. On top of that, the detachment from normal social contact heightens the risk of involvement in crime.

The lack of stable jobs and the inhumane acts of others push one to live on the streets. Once made homeless, redemption is difficult.

Defining homelessness
The Destitute Persons Act 1977 (Act 183) de nes destitution as “any idle person found in a public place, whether or not he is begging, who has no visible means of subsistence or place of residence or is unable to give a satisfactory account of himself2”.

While it is clear that the Act includes the homeless, JKM insists that its assistance is only for the destitute (to its credit, it rescues and releases those who are working). This could only imply that a negative connotation precedes the homeless. Unlike JKM, NGOs such as KSK and YCK classify those who are unable to acquire and maintain a safe, secure and adequate residence as homeless – a clear indication of the discrepancy in the interpretation of “homelessness” between government and NGOs.

Efforts taken
Penang lacks a government-run shelter for the homeless. Yayasan Kebajikan Negara, the only available government agency to shelter the homeless, was supposed to provide a residential programme in November 20123. Till today, there has been no news of this.

However, Penang has a number of NGOs that provide assistance to the homeless, albeit on an ad-hoc basis and with little funding. One such NGO is Kawan, which provides food and shelter but can only operate during the day due to limited funds and volunteers.

KSK on the other hand focuses on feeding the homeless: on Tuesdays and Fridays, their kitchen feeds 60 to 65 mouths, while on Mondays their volunteers take to the streets of George Town, distributing up to a hundred packets of food.

While current efforts by both the authorities and NGOs are helpful, Penang needs sustainable measures. The lack of a comprehensive and holistic policy as well as a specific institution to address homelessness has allowed this issue to persist over the years. On top of that, JKM’s night-time “catch and release” operations – usually concentrated in “hot spot” areas around Komtar, Penang Road and Kapitan Keling Road – while undeniably reducing the numbers of those living on the streets, seem like a treatment fit for criminals.

A policy that addresses different developmental requirements for each age group of homeless people needs to be formulated. For example, old folks’ homes should not be the only viable option for senior citizens who are past the retirement age. They should be provided with the exibility and ability to contribute to the community in a way they would prefer. In helping homeless young people, a viable way of acquiring safe jobs and teaching them useful life skills should be vital.

Both structural and personal factors that contribute to homelessness should be addressed in policymaking. At the individual level, voluntary services rendered should go beyond providing monetary help; they should address the underlying root of the problem. The issue of homelessness is not clear-cut, and both NGOs and the government need to work hand-in-hand to resolve this in sustainable and needs-specific ways.

1 Welfare Department 2013.

2 The Destitute Persons Act 1977 (Act 183).

3 Utusan Online, September 18, 2013.


Glory Viapude majored in developmental psychology. She is a KL-ite who has grown fond of Penang and its beauty.

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