Special Report:Making Malaysia Better:The intelligent way forward


  • When people talk about the homeless or urban poor, there is this misconception that they are lazy, shiftless, drug addicts or foreigners. They are not. They are Malaysians and sometimes, it is just a matter of unfortunate circumstances. > Lee
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This article first appeared in Special Report, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 29 - September 4, 2016.

 

THE social sector, be it non-governmental organisations or social enterprises, has been developing at a tremendous rate over the past few years. These organisations, set up with the express intention of “making Malaysia better”, have been undergoing an evolution in the way they think and operate.

Rather than just addressing the problems at hand in a very short-term way, they look to the long-term consequences for the group they are trying to impact the most. It is the difference between giving a man a fish and feeding him for a day and teaching him to fish and feeding him for life. Here, we feature a few key groups tackling different social issues in a more holistic way.

But making Malaysia better is not just about helping the underprivileged. It is also about restoring the lost sense of community among people and bringing them together to address common concerns. It is about restoring a sense of common heritage and shared history to unite the people and move them forward.

“What kind of a legacy does anyone — the community, the government and the nation – want to leave to our future?” asks Elizabeth Cardosa, executive director of Badan Warisan Malaysia. “The preservation of the past is not only about how much money you can make from it but also how it contributes to your soul and spirit.”

 

Helping their street friends get back on their feet

At 5.30pm every day, the boom gate is lifted at a charming little colonial shophouse near Goon Institute on Jalan Tun H S Lee in Kuala Lumpur. If you are searching for the shop by name, chances are you will miss it, unless you use the trail of people lined up outside as a marker. 

For the most part, these people look just like you or me, except that some of them come laden with their earthly possessions in plastic or canvas bags. You will see from their callused and, sometimes, wounded feet that they have been walking for miles. And that is how you can tell that they are the homeless, the people who live on the fringes of society, keeping out of sight until traffic has cleared and the soup kitchens around the city start operating.

For many,  the Pit Stop Community Café is their first port of call, and this is their first meal of the day. As this is a community café and not a soup kitchen, founder Joycelyn Lee insists on three basic rules: you will be courteous at all times and in turn, you will be treated with courtesy; you will look after the cleanliness of the café, both inside and outside; and you will not waste any food. 

It is pretty much like baseball — three strikes and you’re out, meaning that you are banned from coming back to the café for a hot, nutritious meal of rice porridge, bubur manis or vegetable stew. The first 125 patrons can also get a hardboiled egg. There is usually fancy bread there from Der Backmeister café in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, which donates whatever is not sold at the end of the day to the Pit Stop.

The café was opened on April 4 by Lee and her two co-founders, Allie Subramaniam and Andrea Tan. The rules sort of developed gradually. In the beginning, it was a free-for-all and many of these people, used to years of living on the street, would behave in a rowdy fashion, pushing and shoving, abusing the volunteers who served them the food and throwing away perfectly good food.

But having rules was not just about imposing discipline. It was about humanising them so they could be reintroduced back into society. “Have you seen what happens when they line up and wait for food outside?” asks Lee. “When you talk about a ‘feeding’, it is like a zoo!”

The food is not free. The patrons “pay as you feel”, whether it is in cash or with some sort of service. “The ‘pay as you feel’ concept is to give them the dignity of being able to afford their food if they so choose; it is not charity. They do not need to take charity if they can afford to pay for their food. They can sit down like normal human beings in a café and eat good, hot food — things we take for granted. It is not food from a Styrofoam pack that is given to you by someone on the street,” says Lee.

She points out that if you want to integrate people who have been getting by on their survival instinct for years, you have to show them “care, consideration, politeness and courtesy”. “And that is what we do here. Yes, there are soup kitchens that do good work, but we take it to another level.”

It is not just about sitting down at a proper table to eat. It is also about choice. Everyone who queues is given a small bowl they can fill any way they choose — one of the three dishes or a combination — not to mention the egg (which most of them save for later) and bread.

Having a choice, as Lee points out, is another thing that makes them feel more like people. “When you do a street feeding, it is always the standard fare — rice, vegetable and protein, either chicken or fish.”

Most of the food at the café tends to be porridge or soup-like. “The reason we serve porridge …,” Lee pauses and looks around the café. “Just look at the number of old people we have in here. It is easier to digest. A lot of them have digestive and other health issues.

“We use ingredients that are as fresh and non-processed as possible. We do not use refined salt, but rock or sea salt if we can get it. We do not use refined sugar, but rock sugar or gula Melaka. Yes, the ingredients are expensive, but we hold on to one principle — if we are not going to eat it, we are not going to serve it.”

Lee takes issue with some of the well-intentioned people who do not think through what they are handing out to those who live on the streets. Rice that is a little off; biscuits, where crumbs get stuck in your teeth; or fruits, such as apples, which require a good set of teeth to chomp through.

“We would love for people who want to help to come and talk to us first instead of doing random feedings. Because it is more than just giving out hot food. It is about touching someone and not simply giving them your leavings,” she says.

At Pit Stop Community Café, signifiers are important. The patrons are not referred to as “the homeless” or “urban poor” but as “our street friends”. The aim is to build a community and provide a family-like atmosphere for those who have been displaced and marginalised. 

About 60% of the patrons are senior citizens. While some have fallen on hard times through unfortunate circumstances, there are others who were reasonably well off but were cheated out of their comfortable retirement by their own children.

“The standard story is of an elderly couple who have taken out their EPF savings to pay off their house and comfortably retire when their child comes along and says, ‘Why don’t you sell your house and come live with me? We could use the money to pay for your grandchild’s education.’ And so they sell their house and move in with their child, but can’t get along with the son- or daughter-in-law and end up being treated as charity cases. The next thing you know they are on the streets.”

Lee is keen to tackle the misconceptions about people who live on the streets. “When people talk about the homeless or urban poor, there is this misconception that they are lazy, shiftless, drug addicts or foreigners. They are not. They are Malaysians and sometimes, it is just a matter of unfortunate circumstances.”

Take the 42-year-old network engineer who specialised in internet protocol. He graduated from King’s College London and came back to Malaysia to work. He was retrenched from his job so he started working on a project basis for a small company that eventually folded because it did not have enough work to keep going. He did not get paid but still tried to maintain a lifestyle he could no longer afford. 

“The next thing you know, the bank had repossessed his house and he is out on the streets. This guy is educated, intelligent and articulate. If someone like that could fall so low, what more the rest of us?” Lee wanted to know.

This story has a happy ending. The homeless engineer worked with the café and eventually caught the attention of a potential employer. “Now, he has a new life as a supervisor at a boutique water bottle factory. And they gave him an apartment and a car,” she says.

Another regular at the café is former accountant who retired at 60, but somehow lost all her savings and ended up without a roof over her head. Lee writes about people like these on Facebook, telling their heart-wrenching stories because she wants other Malaysians to know that these people could be us.

The café provides a one-stop shop for those keen on finding a job to drop off their proverbial résumé (name, age, skillset, experience) so potential employers can find them. Lee makes use of her vast network of contacts to see if she can get jobs for them. She makes phone calls and shares their stories on Facebook. Most times, there are kindhearted Malaysians willing to help.

When doing street feedings, Lee used to meet and write about people. But the problem was, because there was no fixed point, it was sometimes impossible to locate them again. Once, she wrote about a single mother from Kelantan who came to KL because she wanted to find proper work. The only work that had been available to her in her hometown was pushing drugs and she was afraid of being caught and hanged. What would happen to her children?

Many responded to the story and wanted to offer this woman some work. But when they tried to locate her, she was not to be found. The café provides a fixed location where someone like this woman would be able to check in from time to time. Potential employers looking for staff, or who are willing to provide training and lodging, can also check in and see what résumés are on offer.

On every volunteer’s T-shirt, you can read the café’s tagline: “Love all, feed all”. As Lee is quick to point out, the feeding is not just a matter of good food. “You come here, yes, we feed your stomach. We feed your mind if you so choose. And if you are a volunteer, we feed your soul when you serve. You get the happies, you get the feels. Isn’t that feeding the soul?”

There are two types of volunteers — regular working people, who pick a day or two a week to come and help prepare and serve the food, and the homeless people themselves. “They get a stipend, a place to stay, work and food. Some of them are trained and we will cycle them out with our references to food and beverage outlets. We also provide training in English and hospitality. The idea is so they can get jobs and support themselves,” says Lee.

She adds that anyone who wants training will get it. “And we are introducing hairdressing classes here once a week. It is a 10-week course and after that, they are evaluated. If they pass, we will find them jobs.”

All courses and classes are conducted upstairs, a beautiful blank space that can be used for a variety of purposes. There is a divider (especially for the medical check-ups that take place once a month) and cushions on the floor. There is an informal feel it. No one will feel intimidated.

How did the idea of the Pit Stop Community Café come about? “A lot of teh tarik sessions, a lot of wandering and walking around, a lot of talking to people and realising that what we needed was a hub. There are too many random organisations that don’t talk to each other,” says Lee.

“This was built not just as an outreach. The idea of this was so that it could become a hub for volunteers. It can become a hub for people who want to try possible solutions to social issues.”

She adds that there are many people doing good work out there, but there should be more coordination between them. “And we do try, formally or informally ... there have been calls for all of us to come together. And I have said, ‘Use my place. I have a hub in the inner city. That’s what it is for.’

“I talk regularly with organisations such as the Food Aid Foundation, Feeding The Needy and Kechara. Syed Azmi, who champions and espouses many causes, uses this place as a base for many of his causes as well.”

How is the café funded? Lee says the money comes from public contribution. “If you go to the Pit Stop Community Café Facebook page, we will always have a list of the things we need.”

How can companies work with the cafe? “We are always in need of some form of sponsorship. For instance, we would like someone to sponsor our plumbing work. This is an old building and we need a new tank, pump, shower stall ... we have a wish list that calls for all these bathroom items,” she says. 

“I would like to have two more bathrooms upstairs so I can provide shower services — not for free, but at 50 sen a pop. You cannot give people things for free; it is not appreciated. You can charge them a token sum. If you have no money, you can go and look around on the ground and pick up 50 sen in change. Effort must be put into it. If I am giving things away for free, I will be taken for granted. If I am to give you a hand-up, you have to work for it.”

The bathrooms will cost between RM15,000 and RM18,000 each. This includes the price of fittings and the plumbing work that needs to be done.

Other ways to contribute include sending staff to volunteer at the café. “I have worked with corporates that take a series of days. I actually give them homework before they come. I ask them to go and buy the raw food for us to cook. Or go and collect clothes with the specifics I give them: new men’s underwear; men’s trousers, sizes 26 to 34; dark T-shirts, slippers. And once they have done this, we can set up stations. For instance, five or six of their staff will man the slipper station, another five or six can man the clothes station,” says Lee.

And here too, courtesy is important. “You are not just supposed to hand out items. You are supposed to say, ‘Uncle, what size are you?’ And then go look for the right size slippers or T-shirt or trousers or what have you. It will literally be like a shop where you measure them and everything,” she says.

This would be a short-term collaboration. For those who want to do something more long term, they can look to train some of the people and take them off the streets. “Say, you want to hire for a call centre. There are a lot of old people here who can actually work, but would you provide them with housing? 

“We will advise you on the best way to work with the homeless. We have the resources here and we have the data. We are right smack in the middle of everybody’s target audience and their social causes.”

Lee gets exasperated sometimes working with corporates because many of them have a one-track mind and prefer to do what they are used to, which may not be what the people they are trying to help actually need. “I have had so many offers to paint my walls, it is not funny. I say take that money and come do something else with me. There are so many things that corporates can do, depending on what their business is,” she says.

As she points out, corporations can do a lot, but whether they want to is another matter. “It is not a very popular cause, the homeless. But we are not just dealing with the homeless. We are dealing with street kids, education, single parents. We are looking to teach people how to market their products if they have products. The idea is to help people help themselves. And the corporates can do that.”