Homelessness issue in Malaysia doesn’t look like getting better anytime soon

Arshad Shaharudin
13 min readApr 13, 2022
Credit: The Rakyat Post

Malaysia does not have an accurate definition of homelessness, as the homelessness issue has only recently attracted the attention of authorities and non-governmental organizations. In addition, Malaysian institutions and authority have their own definitions and characteristics of homeless people (Li, 2018). Generally defined as a lack of accommodation, or a lack of regular private space for sleep, laundry and other daily activities. Homeless people are not only those who live on the streets but also those who live below the poverty line or are in fear and anxiety (Busch-Geertsema et al., 2015).

Drani, Azman and Sigh (2020) define homelessness in the legal context: a homeless person or family is a person or family who does not have a permanent address and lives in a place that feels most comfortable. Volunteer organizations that serve this population directly define homeless people as those who face a variety of problems and generally receive compassion from the general public (Ravenhill, 2014).

That said, the United Nations divides homeless people into two types: primary homeless (or no roof) and secondary homeless. The first segment includes people who live on streets without shelter, which fits the definition of housing. The latter may also include people who do not have a permanent address and frequently move between different types of accommodation, including apartments, accommodation, homeless and other living space facilities. This category includes people who live in private homes but have a “no regular address” listed on the census form. In addition, there may be definition conflicts. Hence, making it difficult to create a unified dataset for Malaysian homeless people.

In Malaysia, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (MWFCD) is in charge of the homeless issue, and the Social Welfare Department (SWD) is in charge of overseeing enforcement (Yu & Norliana, 2015). The act that largely rules the issue, on the other hand, is the 1977 Destitute Persons Act (DPA). DPA was generally created to “provide care and rehabilitation for the poor, and management of the wanderers” (Bomb-KL, 2014). The above law has not been amended by many controversies since 1977. The main public concern is that the law violates human rights and does not provide a practical solution to the homeless problem. There are several programs under government initiatives such as Ops Kaseh, Anjung Singgah, Pusat Transit Gelandangan Kuala Lumpur and Desa Bina Diri.

Kuala Lumpur is a good example for this article, because of the recent data collection on the homeless. There are many homeless people in Kuala Lumpur, including those who work but do not have enough income to rent a room or house. You sleep on the streets of the city’s most popular neighbourhood. At dawn, thousands of homeless people hijack the park and five sidewalks, transforming the Kuala Lumpur area into a temporary home. Not all of these homeless people in the capital are beggars or wanderers. In fact, many of them work during the day, but they can’t afford a house or room and don’t have enough income to prefer to live on the street.

Accurate statistics on the number of homeless people in the city are hard to tabulate. Non-Malaysian people make up only 10% of homeless people on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The majority are locals. According to Pete Nicholl, president and founder of Reach Out Malaysia, the demographics of people sleeping on the street are directly related to national demographics in terms of race, religion, and ethnic background (Tan, 2014). He went on to say that the main problem with homeless people is that they don’t have enough income to rent a room. According to Mansor (2017), poverty, drug and alcoholism, negative family relationships, age factors, and financial and psychological problems are the causes of the homeless.

People who are victims of crime and sexual violence are also at risk of becoming homeless (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2008). As a result, homeless people are often under pressure and disrupt in their daily lives, which can lead to disruption in their entire lives. Other factors include severance/unemployment, injury, illness or disability, debt, financial/legal issues, and victims of crime or sexual violence.

Nonetheless, the stories of many homeless people in Malaysia are different, but the problems they face go beyond the need for shelter, safety, and food. Homeless people face many social disadvantages that prevent them from assimilating. They have limited access to public and private services such as medical care, education, employment and even banking services. If you don’t even have a bank account, it will be difficult to apply and get a job. Many non-governmental organizations and individuals provide food and care to the homeless. There are several programs to address this issue. This includes programs from the Department of Social Affairs and the National Welfare Foundation. However, most of the time, homeless people are away from state programs because they are afraid to be “sent” to deprived state facilities and shelters (Indramalar, 2014).

Credit : The Star

Homelessness is not new in Malaysia, but the government is not yet come up with a comprehensive solution for it. One of the reasons is the lack of awareness and understanding of what constitutes the homeless. For instance, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (MWFCD), the Department of Social Welfare (DSW), and the Desa Bina Diri Rehabilitation Center (DBD) each have their own definition of homelessness. The homeless were classified as poor by MWFCD and DBD and defined as beggars and wanderers. A beggar is a person who makes a living by begging for money and food, but a wanderer is a person who does not have a permanent house or a regular job and is begging. DSW, the division that represents MWFCD, is inconsistent in addressing the issue of homelessness in Malaysia as the spokesperson, Zulkapli Sulaiman, described the homeless as a drifter and a “troublemakers.” According to him, many of them are healthy and work, so they could not be put under the Destitute Person Act 1977.

Based on the various definitions available, there are several aspects to determining who is considered homeless, and the numbers may not be accurate. Another source of uncertainty is that statistics about the homeless can only include those who are clearly homeless. As a result, “hidden” homeless people who do not visit the soup kitchen or hang out in public places are not included in the statistics and cannot be found. For this reason, it is also relatively difficult to formulate policies for all homeless people in Malaysia.

There is no general understanding of the homeless, even among related welfare organizations such as MWFCD and DBD. They consider the homeless to be poor and subject to middle-class law. DSW, on the other hand, considers the homeless to be an administrative crime and leaves it to the police. According to a survey by the Kuala Lumpur City Council (DBKL), the number of homeless people in Kuala Lumpur remained at 1,5002,000 in February 2016. These numbers show that the number of homeless people has tripled since 2014, when only 600 people were recorded. According to a 2010 street survey in Kuala Lumpur conducted by the non-governmental organization UBUNTU Malaysia, there were 1,387 homeless people.

According to the data, the homeless rate is increasing year by year. The central explanation for this could be the stagnant economic situation in recent years. The homeless will survive as the public and government choose to ignore the epidemic altogether, unaffected by the plight of the homeless. This ruthless attitude is most likely due to the negative stereotypes surrounding the homeless.

Due to this issue, it is imperative that Malaysians pay close attention and take appropriate action. Given current policies, all initiatives addressing this issue are fixed with a focus on short-term implementations rather than long-term implementations. The number of homeless people cannot be easily reduced to zero, but it can be limited by a lack of number and severity. In addition to social and financial issues, another issue is the implementation of the Destitute Person Act (DPA). Since the definition of homeless is not fixed, all issues affecting the homeless are subject to this law. The law was passed in 1977 and was the last change in 1985. The purpose is to care for and rehabilitate the homeless and prevent public obscenity.

As we know there are a few present strategies made by the government to deal with the problem of homelessness in Malaysia. However, this initiative seems to cause more problems than it solves as this means could be seen as demeaning to the vulnerable people, which in this case is the homeless. It highlights the fact for need a policy framework aimed at increasing financial security, housing security, health security, and equitable opportunity for all people, children and adults alike, regardless of their background. Therefore, there are a few suggestions that we can look to minimize homelessness issues in Malaysia.

Repeal harmful Destitute Persons Act 1977

The Destitute Persons Act 1977 has been the principal of the government’s strategies in dealing with the problems of beggars and homelessness which in this act are called ‘destitute persons’ for over 40 years. This Act stems from the anti-vagrancy ordinances employed by the British in Malaya back in the 19th and 20th centuries, which aimed to get rid of destitute persons by penalising them (Penang Institute, 2015).

These laws were followed by The Vagrants Act 1965 which permitted the law enforcer to detain poor and homeless people involuntarily (Penang Institute, 2015). Although the establishment of the Destitute Persons Act 1977 was to bring a more humanitarian approach but still not enough as the actions made by the law enforcer is still demeaning and discouraging to the homeless.

This federal law authorizes law enforcers to conduct raids for the purpose of arresting destitute persons which can be defined as someone who appears to be homeless or begging, and sending them to special facilities for “care and rehabilitation” run by the Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development (Kuala Lumpur Committee to Adress Homelessness and Poverty (KL-CAHP, 2015). For example, Ops Qaseh and Ops Gelandangang share the same goal of extracting homeless people from the streets and being sent to Desa Bina Diri or Rumah Seri Kenangan for rehabilitation.

This act allows the magistrate to grant a 1-month of temporary detainment, followed by 3 years of detainment with a maximum of 6 years of detainment altogether (KL-CAHP, 2015). The homeless population was believed to be only 600 individuals on the streets in 2014, however, Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur claimed in 2016 that the number of homeless people had quadrupled. However, the situation may be changed due to the current pandemic with an increase in the population.

In 2013, a survey has been done where there are 72% of homeless people had experienced the raid around 2 to 10 times (Penang Institute, 2015). This shows that these actions are futile and a waste of money and resources as the people who went through this process will end up on the street again. Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Datuk Seri Rina Harun stated that they plan to review the Destitute Persons Act 1977 as it was too outdated (The Star, 2020). Thus, actions taken by these reviews should be observed carefully to know whether they will further reduce the problem of homelessness or not.

Review of the cases people detained in welfare homes

The authorities need to review the cases of all homeless people who have been detained in welfare homes such as Desa bina Diri and Rumah Seri Kenangan involuntarily due to the Destitute Persons Act 1977 (KL-CAHP, 2015). The criminalization of homeless people have been done by the authorities for so long as to keep them away from the eyes of the public.

As they do not possess an effective solution in preventing them on the streets, using force by applying the law is one way to go. According to the act, if the homeless people resist the authorized officer they ‘shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable, on conviction, to be sent to a welfare home or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 monts. This means it is not within their liberty to move to welfare facilities but are forced to do them, if they violated the act then they will need to face the consequences of the law.

All individuals who have been sent to the welfare facilities cannot leave on their own accord. In addition, according to Sections 8(1)(a) and 8(1)(b) of the Destitute Persons Act 1977,The Superintendent shall release an individual if there is “appropriate work to sustain himself” or will be cared for “by any person willing and able to offer the resident sufficient care and assistance”.

However, involuntary detention of individuals is not an ideal measures, and authorities should release everyone whorequested release. Furthermore, time spent in welfare homes does not ensure future employment, housing, or non-discrimination by society (KL-CAHP, 2015). Welfare homes may be able to provide temporary basic necessities, however it still does not deal with the underlying cause of homelessness.

Furthermore, during these raid operations personal belongings such as important documents include health record, personal identification, certificates an essential contacts are prone to lost, as they are not allowed to bring their belongings with them (Penang Institute, 2015). This will cause difficulties in the futures as those important documents may limit their application for employment, receiving healthcare, and government benefits as it will take a long time for them to make new documents.

Other than that, individuals who desire residential care should be transferred to institutions that meet their personal needs, such as those with specialised medical, mental, or disability support services (KL-CAHP,2015). Besides, authorities also need to provide careful attention and assistance to help the homeless people in transitioning to life outside the welfare homes maybe with a combine effort with non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This means they should not be release without proper preparation back to the society where they are prone to be vulnerable.

Look into a more holistic policies and programmes

Insufficient in extensive research on homelessness causes Malaysia to lack in sophisticated and focused homelessness policy and programmes. Studies has also shown that the problem in treating the homeless has been caused by a schism in understanding of the concept of homelessness, making the subject matter difficult and creating erroneous numbers (Sofea Azahar, 2021).

Due to a lack of success in strategies that have been done in Malaysia to reduce the problem of homelessness, adopting other countries effective policies and programmes could be a start such as Canada. The Homelessness Partnering Secretariat (HPS) has consistently utilised the estimate that between 150,000 and 300,000 people are homeless in Canada each year, with activists often using the higher figure (The Homeless Hub, 2021).

Similar to Malaysia, Canada suffers from unreliable data on the number of people experiencing homelessness. The Government of Canada published “The National Shelter Study: Emergency Shelter Use in Canada 2005–2009” in 2013, which provided them with credible shelter data to build a national estimate of homelessness for the first time. Thus, with accurate data the deliverance of aid will be given appropriately without wasting any money and resources.

In referring to Canada’s successful policies and programs in tackling the issues of homelessness, there are a few steps to address which are prevention interventions, emergency response and housing, accommodation and supports (The Homeless Hub, 2021). Canada increases their prevention interventions and accommodations rather than emergency response as their goal is to prevent homelessness and make sure people deserve to own a home.

Example of these prevention interventions are evictions prevention, support for survivor of intimate partner violence and landlord mediation (The Homeless Hub, 2021). Next, for the emergency response is to provide emergency supports like shelter, food, and other basic necessities to people who have just become homeless. Canada support the rights-based intervention with the Housing First policy, with a beliefs that everyone deserve housing.

This policy gives individuals instant access to permanent housing with no housing’readiness’ or compliance requirements, is recovery-oriented, and emphasises consumer choice, self-determination, and community inclusion (The Homeless Hub, 2021). Thus, to replicate the success that Canada had Malaysia needs to do a thorough an accurate research on the number of homeless people, on what policies or programmes are successful and what does not as well as have a realistic goal of ending homelessness by providing prevention measures as well as affordable housing.

The problem of homelessness is impossible to eradicate completely but it can be reduce. Homelessness is an issue of great concern involving everyone in a society. Therefore, each individuals followed by the government and non-governmental organisations should take part in reducing the issues of homelessness.

As mentioned, there are several reasons to homelessness such as retirement or unemployment, people with disabilities, mental health problems,debt, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, victims of crime and sexual violence and victims of domestic abuse. Thus, this means there need to be specific ways to deal with them as to give the best and proper solutions.

It is also crucial to address both social and economic issues concerning homelessness. Public services deliverance must be given in accordance to the needs of homeless people as to ensure the appropriate allocation of resources and services. Effective policies and programs must be done to those in need involving a combination of prevention, emergency response and long term strategies.

Plans in addressing homelessness must take into consideration a variety of concerns such as low wages and unemployment, affordable housing, healthcare aid, basic necessities aid, counselling for victims of sexual and domestic abuse and discrimination on the homeless. Homeless people should not be ostracize from the society , they should also receive the equitable advantage that others posses such as financial security, housing security, health security and similar opportunities to enjoy a better livelihood.

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Arshad Shaharudin

A Media Studies BA graduate, now pursuing a Development Studies MA. Always read but doesn’t really write, hence, here he is trying.