Today he’s married and living in a four-room flat with his family; but back in 2009, VC (we’re using his initials because he wants to stay anonymous) was literally homeless for most of a year. He explains what happened, and how he pulled through those eight months:
Ending up without a roof over his head
In 2009, VC left home after an altercation with his father. He was 22 years old at the time, fresh out of National Service, with no income source other than odd jobs from his friend’s father. He was an only child, and his father had also left the family estranged from other relatives.
“My father was a compulsive hoarder and had anger issues; even my mother had left him and me a few years back. My wider family avoids him. I didn’t even know my uncle’s face and my grandparents’ faces until three years ago, if you can believe it. My home environment was totally unlivable; sometimes the police were called twice a night when we fought.”
VC made only around $50 a day, or roughly $700 to $800 a month, running odd jobs for his friend’s father.
“This was mainly small things like following him in the truck and helping to unload water at different places, or washing the truck. He also didn’t speak English well, so I’d help to read and send emails for him. But some days there was no work.”
Sleeping in the storeroom he cleaned
“For the first few weeks, I would always ‘volunteer’ to help clean up the storeroom in my friend’s dad’s shop,” VC said, “He trusted me enough to lock up and close. What he didn’t know was that I spent about three or four nights a week sleeping in the store room.
I used my duffel bag as my pillow; and I didn’t want to rack up an electricity bill, so I used a small plug-in fan. On nights when it rained, I was so happy to not be outside.”
VC adds that, as his father had been a hoarder, there was a tremendous sense of spaciousness in the storeroom (it was mostly empty other than bottles for water-coolers).
But on nights when he didn’t have the storeroom, he slept at the BBQ pit areas along East Coast Beach, or in void decks.
“No it’s not nice and breezy! It sucked! During the night it’s fine, but I always felt itchy and dirty all over when I woke up. The only good thing was that you can use public showers at the beach area. Till today I hate going to the beach by the way, it reminds me of all that.”
Other places where he showered includes public swimming pools, gyms (if friends can bring him in as a guest), or friends’ home as and when he could. On days when he couldn’t, he would look for wet wipes or at least scrub with soap and water in public toilets.
“Hygiene is the most important,” VC says, “If I got a toothache, or an infection from being dirty, how to pay? In Singapore one problem is the weather; you get sweaty and you have body odour quite fast, when you’re always outdoors.”
When he wasn’t working, VC tried to spend most of the day in malls, museums, or indoor areas where he was unlikely to sweat.
“It’s very hard to find a place to wash and dry your clothes; I sometimes had to do it in sinks. As far as possible I avoided being out in the heat.”
But a place to sleep is the least of your worries
VC said the main issue of homelessness is the amount of stuff you lug with you.
“People are going to notice that you walk about giant bags all the time,” he says “you just take out enough clothes for a week, socks and all – you will see what I mean. Then you have all your other necessities like shampoo, toothbrushes and shaving sticks…what you pack to go overseas for a week, is what I carried around almost every day for eight months.
When I went to work, I always had to come up with a stupid excuse. I can’t leave my things on the floor somewhere right? What if it’s all gone when I come back?”
The worst part, VC said, was when he was went down with a flu or fever.
“When I had a flu, a cough, or something like that, I really hoped I could stay in the storeroom. Sleeping outside made it worse – it’s already uncomfortable, it’s ten times worse when I couldn’t breathe properly; and it’s hot and humid. When I woke up wheezing and covered in sweat, that was the worst.”
The most problematic issue however, was food
VC can actually cook; and if he were able to buy groceries and make his own meals, he would have been able to spend a lot less on it.
“The big problem when you’re homeless is you have no way to cook. Where to find a stove, where to keep your food? So that means every time I want to eat, I eat outside food. This is damn expensive – if I had a place to cook, $50 and I go to the market, can last me a whole month. Compared to $3 a meal, it’s almost half the cost.”
VC never found a way around this.
From the third month on, VC practiced couch-surfing to survive
Eventually, VC was caught sleeping in the storeroom when a staff member came in early. He was told not to do it again. “I didn’t want to risk losing my only source of income, so I promised not to do it again.”
That’s when VC realised that you really need friends in this world to survive.
“I began to realise that friends are the best way to survive. I couldn’t stay at their house of course; but for some of them, it was okay to crash for two or three nights. We made up a story to their parents, that I was from overseas and just staying for a while; usually if it’s a few nights they would be okay with it.
There was a whole month I managed to stay indoors, by crashing at four friends’ homes consecutively. It was like a five-star hotel. There was shower, air-con, TV, sometimes they shared their food. That’s when I realised how much we take for granted.”
The kampung spirit kept him fed on some days
VC says that when you’re homeless, the best thing you can do is befriend the locals at the food places you frequent.
“After about half a year going to the same coffee shops, getting to know people, they were quite willing to help. Actually I don’t think Singaporeans are as bad as we like to complain. A lot of the uncles and aunties, even one secondary school student I got to know, they were happy to treat me now and then.
One of them even invited me to dinner when he struck 4D, that day I got to eat black pepper crab; and he gave me $88 to get back on my feet.”
Breaking the cycle
VC’s homelessness ended after about eight months. Toward the last two months, he worked hard as a drinks stall assistant.
“They never even knew I was homeless,” he laughed, “They only knew I was always super early, and willing to cover for other people. They didn’t know I just walked about 10 steps to sleep nearby every day anyway.”
His job – combined with some other odd jobs – now netted him $1,200 to $1,500 a month, and he began looking for a room to rent. When a friend of his moved out from home, he rented his friend’s former room for $600 a month.
An unnecessary experience
Today, VC disregards his homeless period as a time of youthful stupidity.
“It’s not some ‘growing up experience’ ah please, it’s just eight months wasted. I didn’t know at the time that I could go to the Community Centre, go to this or that Ministry…all that stuff that I know now. It just never even occurred to me.”
Having been through it, however, VC says he’s “much more sympathetic when I see these cases, as I know what they’re going through…and some of them have been like this for years, whereas just eight months was enough to drive me crazy.
If we want to help them, we need to go beyond just buying them food. What homeless people need the most is hope and a sense of dignity. If they give up, they’ll stay that way no matter your $20 or $50 contribution.”
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