Hospitality as justice: Addressing homelessness in Singapore

Source from The Methodist Church in Singapore, 2023: Hospitality as justice: Addressing homelessness in Singapore – The Methodist Church in Singapore

In the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s (LKYSPP) inaugural street count of homeless people in Singapore in 2019, it revealed between 921 and 1,050 street homeless across the island. 1 They were observed to reside primarily in larger and older housing estates and estates with more rental flats. Most were older, single Singaporean Chinese men of low education, with homelessness commonly attributed to economic, family and health problems. Chronic homelessness lasts six years or more for a third of respondents.  Their relative obscurity has relegated Singapore’s homeless population to the periphery of public attention, especially given the pride Singapore takes in its housing policy and home ownership levels.

The LKYSPP outlines three types of homelessness: primary or absolute homelessness, i.e. those who do not have accommodation and sleep in public spaces; secondary homelessness, i.e. those who stay in temporary, crisis or transitional accommodation; and relative or tertiary homelessness, i.e. those who are at risk of homelessness, such as through eviction, or in overcrowded or hostile conditions. Homelessness is not merely being without accommodation, but extends to any situation of residential precarity or instability. (The term “rough sleeping” is often used in Singapore.)

The LKYSPP’s second count in 2022 saw the number of street homeless dropping to 616 by 2021.2 However, this saw a concurrent increase in occupancy in temporary shelters, from 52 to 420. This iteration identified three distinct groups: the long-term homeless sleeping rough prior to the pandemic, the newly homeless seeking housing support because of the pandemic, and those temporarily rendered homeless by the closure of borders, mostly from Malaysia and Indonesia. The pandemic catalysed housing insecurity, exacerbating familial divisions, precarious employment, and deficiencies in the public rental housing scheme. Such examples are a jarring demonstration of the wealth inequality that has predominated Singapore in the last 20 years. The influx of high-net-worth individuals into Singapore, as well as the palatial homes occupied by Singapore’s wealthiest, make the existence of homelessness all the more galling.

A response to homelessness can be found in the Gospel of Matthew. Addressing his disciples, Jesus speaks of eschatology, of the moment of his return, of the “Son of Man [coming] in glory” to be seated on his throne. It is then that he will offer his inheritance to those blessed by the Father: the kingdom prepared for them since the world’s creation. In Matthew 25, Jesus describes the behaviour of those who are denied this inheritance:

“For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, …

Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or

a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’”

Matthew 25:42, 44

The justification behind this inheritance is articulated clearly. The logic here is not transactional: the inheritance of God is not a reward for hospitality. Rather, it inheres in the notion of imago Dei, where each person bears the undeniable imprint and likeness of God and is to be loved in the same way he loves us. God accords particular attention to the marginalised and the poor, especially those with some form of material lack: a lack of food, shelter, clothing, healthcare or companionship. Tending to immediate, physical needs is a tangible expression of the love of God. Care for the soul and the body are entwined.

Homelessness has deleterious effects across various dimensions of health: physical, emotional and mental. To accord hospitality to a stranger is an outworking of an understanding of God’s love and his shalom, a connection of the excluded individual to a collective. Theologian Henri Nouwen writes that hospitality is not about effecting change in people, but rather about lavishly providing space where such change can occur.

Real hospitality is meant to have a freeing, rather than constricting effect upon others. This balance between receptivity and confrontation reminds us that hospitality is a reciprocal dynamic: just as the ministry of presence is vital, tending to the needs of a guest, so too is the ministry of absence—holding space for individuals to flourish.

The realisation of justice for the homeless requires not only short- term solutions such as temporary housing, food and clothing, but also long-term solutions and initiatives that allow for the changing of convictions and the imagining of pathways forward. For example, Homeless Hearts of Singapore (HHOS) aspires to help the homeless reintegrate into the community via temporary aid, advocacy, and local partnerships. Part of this involves inspiring volunteers to befriend the homeless in their own neighbourhoods, enabling a longer-term vision of full community support for reintegration. Many of the homeless that HHOS serves align with the primary demographic identified by the street count—older Singaporean men.

Other initiatives have emerged to provide this ministry of shelter to the marginalised from other demographics. The Ministry of Social and Family Development, with the support of Hope Initiative Alliance, an inter-religious group of social service organisations, civil groups, and corporations, and numerous other organizations, launched the Safe Sound Sleeping Place (S3P) initiative amidst the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. The missional call has been made manifest in the way Christian organisations have responded to S3P. SowCare, the charity arm of the Bible Society of Singapore, set up a temporary shelter for rough sleepers at the Bible House.  Similarly, Yio Chu Kang Chapel opened its doors as a night shelter in November 2019, providing beds, pillows, blankets, refreshments, heated showers, washing machines, dryers and Wi-Fi for the stayers free of charge.

The provision of a home, rather than an alternative shelter, is an approach shared by the Open Home Network (OHN), an initiative of community- based management consultancy Solve n+1. The OHN sees staying with host families as a more viable way of helping those in crisis. The network has designed a system to match people-in-crisis, including those who sleep in public spaces, reside in shelters, live in overcrowded homes, face domestic violence or lack social support, with host families. Beyond simply having a roof over their heads, persons-in-crisis are also then given time, stability, space and community that may help create bridges for them towards reconciliation with their families or independence.

There are many other organisations undertaking important work in providing homes, such as Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics’ (HOME) shelter for female migrant workers or Tamar Village’s efforts to help former sex workers move into their own homes. Fundamentally, these initiatives share an understanding that being housed, and placed in a home, is crucial for the mental, physical and emotional well-being as individuals, which cuts across age, gender, ethnic and socioeconomic lines.

How can the church fully embrace the call to love and welcome the stranger, as so beautifully articulated by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew? How can we see the achievement of safety and peace for the marginalised as being part of the pursuit of God’s justice? Each Methodist church is situated in a unique neighbourhood. Many of our churches may already have ongoing initiatives or partnerships to love the homeless. Abraham Yeo of HHOS suggests that, “People don’t become homeless because they run out of cash, but they become homeless because they run out of relationships.”

May these examples of radical hospitality move us to action: through church, individual, or self-initiated collectives, we can identify if there are homeless individuals within our vicinities, build relationships with them, and see how best they can be supported. In doing so, we may more fully embrace and fulfil the vision described by Jesus:

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

Matthew 25:40 (NIV)