Asia

Opening up their homes to strangers in dire straits

Two Singaporeans have started a movement to encourage and support families here in opening up their homes to provide refuge for those facing a crisis, such as the homeless or abuse victims.

Twenty families have signed up with the Open Home Network, a volunteer movement officially launched in June.

These host families are willing to house those in dire straits rent-free, for up to one year.

Mr Kenneth Heng, founder of Solve n+1, a social enterprise that facilitates social innovation for vulnerable communities, is one of the two people behind the movement.

The other person is Mr Abraham Yeo, the 38-year-old co-founder of Homeless Hearts of Singapore, a charity that helps the homeless.

Mr Heng, 31, said the network’s aim is to recreate the kampung spirit and tap host families to offer temporary shelter to those in need.

He said: “In a kampung, people know each other, are open to one another, and are more ready to share their resources to meet the needs of others in their community.

“In modern Singapore, the sense is that our community has become more private, with people more inclined to mind their own business.”

During the two-month-long circuit breaker which ended on June 1, more people needed refuge as they ran into financial and social difficulties brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

They include those who lost their jobs and can no longer afford to pay rent, victims of family violence and those left stranded by Malaysia’s travel restrictions.

STABILITY BETWEEN TRANSITIONS

Host families can’t replace professional services, which are needed, but they can complement the restorative process by extending friendship, acceptance, love and care. These relationships provide stability between transitions so that the person in crisis can feel enough warmth and security that will embolden them to continuously take steps forward for themselves.

” MR KENNETH HENG, founder of Solve n+1, a social enterprise that facilitates social innovation for vulnerable communities, and one of the two people who started the Open Home Network.

Most of the host families live in Housing Board flats, with some in three-room flats. A few had vacant apartments to offer.

Mr Heng said of those living in smaller flats: “It shows us that it’s not really about space, but the size of their hearts, to be there for those in a crisis.”

The network takes referrals from social service agencies and non-governmental organisations, and both the host family and the person in crisis will meet to gauge if they are comfortable with each other before the person moves in.

Each host family houses one person or family in crisis at a time.

Mr Heng said they advise host families to offer shelter for up to one year, but the length of stay really depends on the individual’s circumstances and the help needed to navigate through his crisis.

Mr Heng noted that while there are shelters for the homeless, these families can complement institutions to offer care and shelter to those in need.

“Host families can’t replace professional services, which are needed, but they can complement the restorative process by extending friendship, acceptance, love and care.

“These relationships provide stability between transitions so that the person in crisis can feel enough warmth and security that will embolden them to continuously take steps forward for themselves,” said Mr Heng.

Those who have sought help include homeless men from their 50s to 70s, and unwed mothers in their 20s and 30s who needed a place to stay as their families were not supportive of their pregnancies.

There were also a few teenagers who needed refuge because of violence at home or strained ties with their families.

When asked about precautions to keep the coronavirus at bay, Mr Heng said the social workers referring the person in crisis will do the necessary contact tracing and ensure that both host family and guest are healthy, among the safe distancing measures they have in place.

Mr Lun Wei Ming and his wife Charlene Lie, who are both 31, recently started hosting an 18-year-old teen who needed refuge as his home environment was unsafe for him due to family violence.

Mr Lun, who also works at Solve n+1, said he was initially apprehensive about their safety and security when Mr Heng asked the couple if they could be a host family. The couple, who live in a five-room HDB flat, do not have children.

Madam Lie, a church worker, said of her initial apprehension: “Home is our most comfortable space and having someone I don’t know live with us pushes us out of our comfort zone.”

The couple decided to become a host family after talking to Mr Lun’s mum, who shared that his grandmother used to shelter those in need in their home in a kampung.

Madam Lie said of their experience so far: “It has been rewarding, although there are also challenges adjusting to another person. Our eyes and hearts have been opened to meet a young person in a crisis.”

Another host family is that of Mr Terrence Tan, a 46-year-old associate lecturer, and his wife, Madam Lim Mui Khim, a 42-year-old financial adviser.

They have two daughters, aged 10 and 12, and the family lives with Mr Tan’s parents in a four-storey semi-detached house.

Madam Lim, who had a “challenging childhood”, said she was grateful for friends and relatives who allowed her to stay in their homes for short periods when things were too tense at her place. So she is paying it forward.

For a few months last year, the couple hosted a 13-year-old girl who had very strained ties with her father, a single parent.

Her social worker felt that a short stay with a host family could give both the father and the girl – who grew up in a children’s home – breathing space, in the hope of mending the relationship.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) says it welcomes ground-up initiatives to help the homeless.

It had a virtual meet-up in May with the Open Home Network for them to understand each other’s efforts, and they had a “fruitful conversation”.

The MSF spokesman said: “Both MSF and the Open Home Network share a common understanding and purpose to help the homeless.”

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