Homeless heroes: Wake up and focus on the right people, right issues

As published in Malay Mail today

Reports by Purwaiz Alam

IT is only when we are in someone’s shoes will we know what they are going through. 
With that in mind, I hatched the idea of going homeless for 36 hours.  
I had become weary of all the negativity on Facebook. Nothing seemed right. Everyone would come out with guns blazing about every issue. It was not a nice scene. There were toxic remarks and  people hammering each other over every little matter.
 I had to do something meaningful before I got dragged into the quicksand. So the idea of going homeless went on my bucket list and I wanted to do it as soon as possible. 
I approached the seniors in charity group We Love We Care We Share and they were receptive to the idea. 
It would be a two-pronged approach to raise funds for the less fortunate and to create awareness on the plight of the homeless. It was then decided that this would be done in conjunction with my 55th birthday yesterday and a target of collecting RM5,000 was set.
The project was announced on Facebook on Oct 23, less than five weeks before I went homeless on Tuesday. We were not sure if there would be enough time to hit the target.
But what happened after that surprised everyone. We hit RM6,000 on the first day.
We had already collected more than RM12,000 by Nov 20. It is heart-warming to know there are many generous people around.
This project, however, was not all about money. It was also to raise awareness, and Malay Mail decided to do its part with today’s reports. Besides, it has been a fulfilling experience for me.
 It made me realise how little we actually do for the less fortunate because we don’t have any personal links to them. We are more compassionate and caring and even over-react when those we know are involved.  
From the day the project was announced, I received so much advice and friends expressed concern over my safety and kept asking if I was sure I wanted to go through with it. 
They kept asking me how I would survive on RM5.50 for 36 hours. 
I was given tips on what to bring — handphone, raincoat, mosquito coil, jacket, blanket, bedsheet, etc. Some even suggested I make a police report to protect myself. 
I was overwhelmed by the flood of advice and felt thankful I had such good friends who were concerned about my well-being. 
It was not a camping trip. I wanted the genuine homeless experience and turned down most of the suggestions. I am glad I did. 
My wish is that we wake up and realise what the homeless face day in day out, not just for a mere 36 hours. If there can be so much concern when it involves someone you know, we can certainly channel this concern to the real deserving ones in the streets.
Some friends saluted me and called me a hero. You become a hero by living like the homeless for 36 hours? The heroes are out there living in the streets, long after I have been back in the arms of my loved ones in the comfort of my home.  
The few homeless people I spoke to during my stint all had similar traits -- just like the rest of us. They have ambitions too. They want to get a job and build their lives, get married and have proper homes. But they can’t do it on their own. 
They need help. Just providing food or some monetary assistance is not going to be enough. They need guidance, counselling and advice. They need jobs, family and friends.  
I must also salute the soup kitchens which are doing a great job in providing sustenance to the less fortunate. I was a happy beneficiary of their efforts and realise the big role they play to let the homeless cling on to their hopes and dreams. 
Thirty-six hours is not much but it is enough to realise homelessness is not just about not having a roof over one’s head. It is about poverty, unemployment and loneliness. 
We have to wake up, open our eyes and focus on the right people and right issues.


When teh tarik is a luxury

"It's amazing how perspectives change when the tables are turned.

It was to be a tough challenge making sure I had enough to eat during the 36 hours I was homeless. I only had RM5.50 which is hardly enough for even one meal nowadays.
Thanks to the soup kitchens, that amount turned out to be a princely sum. I managed to ration the food so I had dinner and breakfast covered. 
It was my lucky day as lunch was also covered because the FT Religious Department hands out food to the poor every Wednesday. 
It meant I had all of RM5.50 and did not need to spend a sen.  
But then I decided to splurge because I could afford it. 
On Wednesday, I walked to the Central Market area, found a mamak shop and ordered roti canai and coffee for RM2.40, something most homeless people can only dream of. 
Earlier, I had paid 20 sen to use a public toilet as it was cleaner. I could have used the toilet at the mosque for free, but hey, I had the money. 
Again, you will never see those living in the streets doing this. Every sen is precious to them.
The next morning, I was craving for teh tarik. I walked over to the restaurant at the railway station and sat myself down. I looked dishevelled and worse than a tramp. The owner gave me a glare, as if thinking to himself, “Can this guy pay for his drink?”
I was not upset or angry. I felt good that I would prove this man wrong. I took my time to finish the teh tarik, walked up to the counter and proudly paid RM1.40 and walked out after saying thank you.
By the end of my homeless stint, I still had a massive RM1.50 in my pocket. When my friend Sam Lim came to get me, we went for breakfast in Bangsar. And suddenly RM1.50 was almost worthless.

Diary of a homeless man

Tuesday, Nov 25
9pm: I  had been confident about seeing through this assignment but as I arrive at the National Mosque, I am gripped by anxiety. All the “what if” thoughts are spinning in my head but then there is no backing out.
9.15pm: I find a spot to make my “bed”. It is in a 10m-long sheltered corridor at the end of the open compound. There are three men there who are chatting while a fourth is asleep further down in the corner. I say a sheepish hi to the trio and “book” my place next to the sleeping man. I lay out my “bedsheet”, a 30cm x 60cm cardboard and some sheets of newspaper, on my bed (the floor). It’s barely enough to hold even a 12-year-old, but that’s all I have.
9.30pm: Another man comes and sits next to me. We start chatting. Shah, 45, is jobless but he has ambitions. He wants to get a permanent job, get married and buy a place of his own. He is just like the rest of us!!!
10pm: Shah leaves the mosque grounds. I try and sleep until the soup kitchen people arrive. It’s tough. There’s a strong stench of urine. I look around and except for the layer of dirt on the floor and bits of rubbish, I don’t see anything wrong.
10.15pm: The Corridor of Urine is too much too bear and I decide to move to the open air compound. I pack up my “bedsheet” and leave but barely three minutes later, it starts to pour. I return to the corridor. But again, just three minutes later, the skies close up and not a drop of rain. Very funny, Mother Nature. I don’t like this runaround. I dare not leave for fear it might pour again. So I bear with the stench and just close my eyes. It’s getting warm and nauseous. 
10.30pm: Stench mystery solved. One of the men walks to the end of the corridor, just 2m away from me, and urinates in the corner. I am horrified but don’t dare say anything. A couple of minutes later, another man does the same. Yucks! I pack my stuff and go to the compound for good. There are three men sleeping on the ground but they are well-armed — plastic sheets/mats as bedsheets; blankets and even air pillows. I choose one of the four 1.5m x 1.5m stone slabs as my bed. Way too small even for a 10-year-old. I lie down diagonally, hoping it will give me more space. It’s not working. Half my body is hanging out. 
11pm: Staring at the sky which is full of stars. The palm trees in the compound add to the scenery. If only the endless noise from the traffic was sea waves, and my “bed” was a sandy beach. It would be the perfect holiday.  
11.10pm: The stone slab is hard and cold. Any which way I turn, it’s uncomfortable. Waiting for the soup kitchen people to arrive so it will give me a break from the monotony of tossing and turning.
11.30pm: They are here. I queue up and collect my ration. They are generous people — a packet of rice with chicken and vegetables, a pear, a bun and some cookies plus a bottle of water. I eat the packet of rice but keep the rest for breakfast. Simple meal but good enough to last the night. 
Wednesday, Nov 26
12.01am: Shah is back. He sits next to me and tells me about his close shave. It seems he had gone to sleep in front of a bank with two others. Then a group of four youngsters armed with batons went after them. Shah says it is a case of mistaken identity. Whatever it is, I am glad he is okay. We chat for about 10 minutes before he finds his own “bed”. In the meantime, another group of Samaritans arrives. They hand us a bun each, water and a mosquito coil.
12.15am: I have to try and sleep. Toss and turn, toss and turn. Sleep won’t come. I sit up. Most of the others are asleep. A few are chatting or maybe like me, find it hard to sleep. It is going to be a very long night.
2am: It’s tough. Can’t wait for daylight. Sleep won’t come. I look up at the sky. It’s beautiful with all the stars. I realise this beauty is the same for everyone — something the poor and homeless have equal access to.
3am: I have finished counting the stars. There are millions of stars. Time to count people. There are seven in the Corridor of Urine (obviously they have lost their sense of smell); nine all over the compound ground and four including me on the stone slabs. They comprise all age groups. A total of 20. Back to bed but sleep won’t come.

4am: It’s freezing now. I don’t have a blanket. Fortunately, I have a long-sleeved shirt and I put it on. It helps a little. 
5am: Some of the others start waking up. They pack their stuff and leave for work. Many others are in deep sleep (I think). Me? Sleep won’t come.
5.15am: The doa recital over the loudspeaker starts before the azan for subuh prayers. It gives me a feeling that God is looking after these poor souls in His own way, making sure they won’t be harmed. Maybe I am trying to convince myself that I will be safe.
6am: Sleep comes.

6.30am. It’s getting bright. Half an hour. That’s all the sleep I had.
7am: I decide to take a walk. There are about 10 people still sleeping all over the place. I see Shah too. I head towards Kota Raya which is about 2km away on foot. I come across several homeless people, mostly the elderly. A plastic bag or two in hand, they look fatigued and lost. They are not from my “neighbourhood”, but probably from other homeless “colonies” like Masjid India, Chow Kit or Old Klang bus station which is also known as Lost City. The sight is heart-wrenching.
7.40am: I am at the Kota Raya bus station. I sit and eat a bun from the previous night in between sips of water and a huge dose of carbon monoxide from the buses. That’s breakfast. I walk back to the mosque.
8.15am: Shah is face down and fast asleep. I sit on a stone slab and think about home. I miss my family and friends.
8.40am: Time for another walk. 
10am: Back at the mosque compound. I have already walked about 10km today. But just before that, I spend 20 sen from my fortune of RM5.50 to use a public toilet. It is a fair charge because it is quite clean and I get my business done comfortably. At the mosque, I am somewhat glad to see Shah awake. He is staring blankly, something which I will find out soon enough, is common among the homeless. He is hungry. I take out the rest of the leftovers from the previous night. We share the three pieces of toasted bread, bun and some cookies. One large pear left in my knapsack. When you are broke, planning meals is vital. Shah is civic-minded. He takes the plastic wrappers, folds them neatly and dumps the small stack in the rubbish bin. We chat for a while before he goes for a walk.

10.15am: I sit and stare at the traffic blankly, just like Shah did. I lie down on the stone slab hoping to take a nap but I can’t seem to sleep. I think about the others who slept there. Where could they be now?
11am: Shah is back with two friends in tow. I join them but the other two don’t interact with me. They avoid eye contact. They must be wary because I am a new face. Shah tells me every Wednesday the FT Religious Department gives out free food to the poor during lunch. It means I get to keep my remaining RM5.30. 
11.30am: I join a queue of about a 100 people to collect my chicken rice packet, an apple and water. People sit around the mosque perimeter and dig into their food. There is hardly any talking. They must be very hungry.
Noon: That’s also the last I see of Shah. He disappears after lunch and doesn’t return. I feel sleepy after the meal. There are people milling around. It doesn’t bother me. I lie on the ground and sleep all of three minutes before the discomfort gets to me. Time to walk again.
12.15pm: It starts to pour. I take shelter at a covered walkway. There’s a man in his early 60s doing the same. He is homeless too. He is from Butterworth and arrived in KL four days ago. He says he missed the lunch handout. There is disappointment written all over his face because he will have to starve until late night. He is penniless. I offer him the large pear but he declines. He says he wants to earn enough to buy a bicycle and a handphone, then he will return to his hometown. But so far, he hasn’t been able to get any job. He says he was ridiculed by some people in Butterworth because he doesn’t even own a bicycle. He doesn’t specify who these people are. I am about to give him whatever money I have but he suddenly dashes off in the rain because it’s time to pray. That’s the last I see of him. I never got his name. Another heart-breaking moment.

12.30pm: The rain is down to a drizzle so I continue walking but I feel groggy and turn back. 
1pm: My T-shirt is damp. That, mixed with my sweat, would make a skunk scram. I take a bath at the mosque. There’s no soap, so I just scrub the best I can. I wear my other T-shirt and look 
into the mirror. I still look terrible.
2.45pm: I walk again, this time towards Central Market. I can splurge since I had saved on lunch. I go to a mamak stall and order roti canai and coffee. It costs me RM2.40. I feel rich. I can afford such a wonderful meal. Convinced that I did the right thing, I head back to the mosque grounds.
4pm: I walk over to the other side where there are wooden benches and plonk myself on one. It doesn’t bother me that it’s wet. I doze off for 15 minutes before I am awoken by a swarm of flies. It’s only then I noticed the dustbin next to me.
4.20: Back at the stone slab. The next five hours are spent staring at the traffic. I think I just blanked out from the lack of sleep.
9.30pm: I move further in where it is darker. I lie on the slab. Today I don’t even have the comfort of the tiny cardboard and newspapers.Toss and turn, sit up, lie down. Repeat.
11.30pm: Soup kitchen people are here. Free meals are the daily highlight for the homeless. There’s a bonus this time. There’s a piece of fish, prawn and chicken. A meal for kings.
Thursday, Nov 27
12.05am: The whole night is spent tossing and turning but I doze off now and then. The coldness of the stone seeps through my clothes and chills my bones. I shiver at times but I somehow see the night through. 

6am: I still have RM2.90 left. I head to the mamak shop at the railway station and order teh tarik. I feel good that I can afford a drink in a restaurant. It costs me RM1.40 I finish my tea and return to base. I take my bath. I’m coming home.

 8.45am. My friend Sam Lim arrives and I leave what has been home for two nights with RM1.50 in my pocket. I am overjoyed that I am going back. But I am leaving behind a whole lot of people who wish they could be in my shoes. It’s been a valuable lesson. Every time I grumble about something, my experience of the past two nights will remind me to be grateful for 
what I have.
10.30am: I am home after a hearty breakfast and a visit to the barber. Life is back to what it was. For the homeless, life won’t change until they get help and guidance. Goodbye, “housemates”. You will always be my heroes.


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