Homeless people are often depicted as persons who sleep on the streets, cannot give a satisfactory account of themselves and beg for alms. For those who have a deeper understanding of the issue, homelessness is a state of having no secure housing. This includes individuals who live in the homes of friends and family, in shelters and hostels, or at their workplaces where accommodation is provided. Street homelessness just happens to be the most visible kind of homelessness.

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Many have the impression that all homeless persons are lazy or lack willpower to help themselves out of their respective predicaments. This impression can be challenged by scrutinizing the systemic issues that surround homelessness, such as a lack of affordable housing, weak labor laws, social exclusion, documentation issues, and legal powers against urban vagrancy, just to name a few. Such problems make it difficult for society to prevent or reduce homelessness and for individuals to exit homelessness.

A number of homeless people have named low wages as a factor in homelessness. In Malaysia, despite the Minimum Wage Order, which is part of the National Wages Consultative Council Act of 2011, or Act 732, many workers still earn less than the minimum wage because it is poorly enforced. In addition, the work many of the homeless may have access to is either part-time or in the informal sector, such as recycling and scavenging, which does not pay the national minimum wage of 900 ringgit (US$217) per month in Peninsular Malaysia.

Aside from the above factors, there is also labor exploitation, unemployment caused by regional changes and economic cycles, and other factors. For some, homelessness may actually be a choice as an alternative to temporary shelters. This may be because they already have established a connection with the homeless community within their area and do not want to lose the only social network they have. Those who are employed may not want to be restricted/confined to one place and forced to work in a job that is not of their choosing.

There are a multitude of barriers that make it difficult for homeless persons to become self-sufficient citizens with secure housing. Ultimately, all parties have a responsibility to reduce and prevent homelessness. However, government plays a crucial role, as it has the resources, size, scope and power necessary to change public policy and public attitudes toward homelessness.

The Malaysian federal government largely depends on the application of the Destitute Persons Act (DPA) to handle homelessness. The 1977 act has its roots in the anti-vagrancy ordinances deployed by the British in colonial Malaya, which date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These ordinances were designed to remove poor persons from public view by sentencing or fining offenders. They were followed by the Vagrants Act of 1965, which enabled police detention of poor and homeless persons. In 1977, the DPA was supposedly enacted to bring a more humanitarian touch to the issue of homelessness.

The DPA aims “to provide for the care and rehabilitation of destitute persons” and to provide “for the control of vagrancy.” It does so through allowing local authorities (and any officers authorized by the local authorities) to take into custody anyone they suspect is a destitute person. Under the DPA, a “destitute person” means anyone found begging in a public place or any idle person who has no visible means of subsistence or place of residence.

A 2015 survey found that more than 70% of homeless persons in Kuala Lumpur had been rounded up multiple times. This shows a lack of efficiency and a waste of resources in carrying out such operations. It also shows a disregard for the well-being of those who have been released, as the local authorities do not provide transport to return them to where they were picked up.

Many homeless persons have established support networks with non-governmental organizations and fellow homeless people, as well as having jobs that they need to return to. This exacerbates the financial and social insecurity of homeless persons.

A coalition of NGOs, many of which have worked tirelessly to give homeless persons aid and opportunities, has been urging the repeal of the Destitute Persons Act. The enforcement of the DPA has been described by Michelle Yesudas, spokeswoman for Lawyers for Liberty, as a “criminalization of a person’s existence because they are poor,” as it enables various human-rights violations such as the denial of the right to due process, the right to personal liberty, the right to equal protection and the right to property.

NGOs such as Dapur Jalanan and others view food as not only for sustenance but also as a tool to gain the trust of homeless persons in order for them to share their stories. Many homeless people congregate at food-sharing programs to enjoy the company of other humans who treat them as equals.

Homeless persons and other needy individuals are complex individuals who have needs, hopes and stories of their own. Many soup kitchens go to great lengths to provide services beyond the provision of food, such as employment opportunities, medical aid, and counseling and face challenges that come with dealing with homeless persons in Kuala Lumpur and throughout Malaysia.

Such NGOs, not just in Malaysia but in other countries as well, have had the privilege of witnessing many people turn over a new leaf, getting decent jobs, acquiring permanent housing, making amends with their families and sometimes even getting married and having children. In the US, a homeless woman who graduated from Harvard University is an international inspiration.

It is high time for a comprehensive public-private-sector initiative in order to bring Malaysia in line with Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food. Approximately 200 additional UN instruments address the right to adequate food and nutrition within civil-political, economic-social-cultural, development, and indigenous rights constructions.

As a certified humanitarian, I can only plead: It’s now or never!