Improvised shelters for the impoverished

NST, September 18, 2013

AS the city winds down at the end of a long day, in several locations, things are slowly stirring. From out of nowhere, they come, with pieces of cardboard in one hand and their personal belongings in the other.

They gather around, find a spot and lay their cardboard boxes on the floor.

Some exchange pleasantries, others are just too beat to do anything, and all they want to do is rest their weary bodies.

Pedestrian underpasses, which Streets highlighted in its Sept 13 issue, are not the only favourite haunts of vagrants who seek shelter when night falls.

As the city goes to sleep, the homeless also make bus stations, pavements, five-foot ways, stairway and escalator landings their "home".

Our recent checks in Jalan Pudu showed Menara Maybank's escalator landing was used by vagrants while the broad stairways and walkways were also a good spot for them to sleep on.

Some used their bags as pillows and the cardboards as their beds while others just slept on the floor.

A bus stop and the walkway nearby reeked of urine.

We handed them some drink packs and buns to get them to speak to us.

One vagrant claimed to be a former millionaire.

The man, who only wanted to be known as Mohan, said he opened several successful restaurants but lost everything when he was cheated in a business deal.

"I lost my money, house, assets and all of my investments. I thought I could get back some money by gambling in Genting Highlands," said Mohan.

"I went there a few days ago hoping to win something but luck was not on my side," said the man, who was settling in to get some rest.

Mohan, who claims to be married to a Singaporean Indian-Muslim, is still waiting for his wife to bank in some money so that he can go back to Singapore and be with her.

Having been in Jalan Pudu for more than a week, he hopes that his situation will not turn for the worse.

"It is really hard walking around the streets with no money. But no matter how hard this is for me, I know there are others here who are worse off.

"Which is why I never tussle with them when people offer food," said Mohan.

We also spoke to a female vagrant, probably in her 50s, who was lying on a mat next to the escalator. Looking pale, she said that she was asthmatic and had no money to finance her treatment.

"I've been sleeping here for years. My family abandoned me and I have nowhere else to go," she said, panting.

Covering herself with a worn-out blanket, she was out of breath as she spoke. Looking a little out of place was a man in his 60s, wearing a clean shirt, neatly tucked into his pants, with a pair of nice shoes on, and his hair combed back, befitting a well-groomed person.

He was sweeping the dust off the floor with a folded newspaper when we approached him. He then lined a few newspapers on the floor, making it his bed. He only had a bag beside him, probably holding his personal belongings.

Refusing to give his name, the man said he had been sleeping near the Menara Maybank escalator for the past three years. He said he does odd-jobs and the bank was among his many crash pads.

"If I need to use the bathroom, there is one nearby here and on some lucky nights, some people would be handing out food here," he said, refusing to divulge other details as he wanted to sleep.

Although the vagrants settled in by the stairways and even at the foot of the non-operating escalators, our observation showed that the bank's security guards did not force them to leave the grounds.

Another old man we saw here said the security guards have never chased them away as they would leave the place at the crack of dawn without messing up the place.

"By 5.30am, I am up. I clear the newspapers and bin them with the empty food packs," he said.

We also spotted several homeless people still wide awake at 2am, as if they were on the lookout.

Our eyebrows were raised when we spotted one, who was still awake, chatting with his friend, who had a crowbar in the back pockets of his pants. Additional reporting by Halim Said