Support Site for The Unemployed & Underemployed
Wednesday November 14th 2018

Homeless guy: “Gilbert you look more homeless than me – in your heart!”

Flashes of lightning lit up the sky as I made my way gingerly into Arab St/Kampung Glam at around 9pm – now fast becoming a hotspot for tourists, yuppies and of course the small homeless community dotting the side-walk lanes of Sultan Mosque.

I grimaced quietly as I have not taken my dinner yet and evening appointment is a rarity for me now as I preferred to rest at night but Mr Salay fascinated me with his heart-wrenching email to PSD which was also cc email to me.

We have made several trips to Arab Street during our homeless volunteerism and each trip I would leave the place feeling saddened as there are many homeless sleeping nearby or just in front of the mosque vicinity. They are often piled up in a cluster perhaps for need of company so that they won’t feel so lonely being homeless. We once found a group of 6-7 homeless sleeping almost side by side nearby a garden patch and the sad spectacle always put a tear or two in our eyes.

I waited for a short while for Mr Salay as I tugged in to the yummy Malay rice and at the same time absorbing the vibrant atmosphere of Arab St with it’s energetic youthful clientee.

My homeless client ambled down the cobbled lane towards me as I quickly hurried to shake his hand – noticing that he is dressed in his traditional Malay attire.

Mr Salay is 52 years old, married for the second time to a Indonesian woman in Batam with a 2-year-old kid and works as a odd-job labourer earning not more than $1000/month.

His first marriage ended up in a divorce few years back and he left the entire 3-room flat to his family of three kids and his ex-wife – he mentions that he still pay maintenance of $700 initially but now the amount is being reduced as the first two kids have grown up leaving behind a younger daughter who still needs his financial assistance.

My first thought as I chatted with Mr Salay is that this guy don’t look homeless at all – he laughs alot, seems happy and even could dish out funny jokes to me as our 90-minute conversation took on a friendly banter.

He told me how he slept outdoor for close to seven years after his divorce and could not get any rental flat from HDB as he marries a foreign wife and that his ex-wife gained custody of all his children so he could not apply any housing scheme through union with a child.

His email to PSD last week also attracted a few calls from the authorities who told him to either legally seek for joint custody of the kids from his ex-wife so that he can get access to some housing option or try to get another person to co-own the rental flat with him.

The first option seems a difficult choice as he has to get legal assistance so that he could co-share the custody of his kids in order to form a family nucleus for housing ownership and the second option is also not viable as he doesn’t know anyone who wants to co-own a rental flat with him.

Mr Salay told me he sleeps mostly at a cafe till closing time at 3am before he moves to a location nearer the mosque to continue his rest and goes off to work as a odd-job labourer at around 6am. He bathes at a nearby tiolet and gets free food from a place which he refuses to disclose to me.

His only solace is the bi-monthly trip to Batam to visit his foreign family in Batam.

However, he made a remark which jolted me a little: “You look more homeless than me Gilbert…I am homeless physically but in your heart you are homeless.”

I could not forget his profound words as I journeyed home in the heavy downpour after our meeting  as there is some truth in what he has said. Home is where the heart is and for me the frequent shuttle from place to place has uprooted my sense of home and belonging. I must have spent at least four months away for my humanitarian trips this year alone and often have to adjust my bearing when I reach home.

The house keys is lost somewhere in my luggage bag and more importantly the heart has to adjust back to the place after a prolonged absence. Once, I could not remember my block number after a prolonged trip abroad while inside a cab at the airport!

Moreover after the divorce, a house is not the same anymore for me and you returned to an empty nest which you hope you can share with someone. There is coldness and emptiness in a place you wish you can call home so the question to ask is – am I more homeless than Mr Salay even though I have a comfortable roof and shelter and he has to sleep outdoor?

Though Mr Salay is homeless for seven years, he experienced alot of kindness and love through the charitable act of a cafe owner at Arab St who allows him and some other homeless folks to rest upstairs at his cafe till closing time at 3am. He never feels that he is really homeless where he is as he has friends all round him.

The fascinating evening ended off with a warm note as I chatted a while with the cafe owner who allows some homeless folks to rest in his cafe upstairs till he closes at 3am. You don’t get this frequently and he agrees to take a photo with me provided I don’t post it up on social media – sorry – such heart-warming news need to be shown to the world!

Initially he mistaken me for an insurance agent but I assured him that I am merely a social worker out to meet a homeless guy seeking some assistance. I produced a name card to rest his doubts…

I also asked him why is he sheltering the homeless abeit temporarily for a few hours till he closes shop at 3am – his reply shattered me: “I need to share what I have with others. Life is short and you don’t know when you will go…”

It was enough to put tears in my eyes as I walked into the heavy evening downpour close to 11pm – feeling very warm in my heart that there are still some good people out there in our cold hard society!

Written by: Gilbert Goh

Editor’s note: The cafe owner also fetched me an umbrella before I left!

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