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Homelessness is not a social problem usually associated with the wealthy island state of Singapore.
Singapore is a nation of homeowners, largely thanks to a comprehensive system of government subsidised housing.
The public can either buy public housing flats directly from the government or a resale flat, which is more expensive as prices are adjusted according to market forces.
But a population explosion in the last few years and a widening income gap have resulted in public housing prices skyrocketing, and many low-income earners are unable to either meet the criteria for direct purchase or afford resale.
Even renting at market price is increasingly unaffordable to low-income families.
As Monica Kotwani found out this is leaving more Singaporeans living on the streets.
Night falls and shrouds this small suburban park in Singapore in darkness. Slowly, people arrive and set up their tents for the night. They are homeless, and part of an increasing number of people living in open spaces.
This has been Jennifer and her three children’s home for almost two years. Jennifer is not her real name. It has been changed because she was warned by authorities her case would take longer to be assessed if she spoke to the media.
“We don’t have anywhere to stay and I don’t have the money to rent a place, and I’m not working because I couldn’t find a job.”
Jennifer and her ex-husband sold their flat after a messy divorce. She received only a fraction of the money from the sale of their flat, not enough to afford purchasing or privately renting another.
“You don’t have all the facilities at home. You don’t feel safe because you don’t have shelter where you know your kids are safe. When raining, then you have to be worried, ok all the water coming in- it’s not a good, safe place to stay.”
The government housing policy says she needs full custody of her children to be eligible for the government’s Public Rental Scheme.
“They said if I want to have a house, I have to have full custody of the children. I told them, not say I don’t want to look after my kids, but their father wants to have full custody of the kids, I cannot stop him.”
In order to be eligible for the government’s Public Rental Scheme, applicants also must not have sold two units bought directly from the government.
Joshua Chiang who helps homeless and displaced Singaporeans says it is very easy to be rendered ineligible.
“For a couple married for 15 years and with kids, your first flat is the one you bought when you were married. Then when you upgrade (to a bigger flat), that’s your second flat. Let’s say you’re divorced, then you sell your second flat. That’s it. There’s your two bites of the cherry.”
Some months back, when knowledge of the homeless living in tents at parks and beaches first made news, Joshua went to assess the situation personally.
“We saw, in front of us, there were about ten tents already. In the other beach, there were about twenty tents, but we only managed to speak to about six families there.”
Homelessness is a thorny issue for the government.
Some weeks ago, Al- Jazeera, intending to cover this story, called and emailed the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports to get a response on this stance.
Their request was denied.
According to alternative news websites, authorities raided parks and beaches, rounded up the homeless campers, and made arrangements for some to stay in temporary shelters.
Others were fined for violating camping permits and sent away.
I am standing outside a block of flats in central Singapore where reportedly some of the homeless were sent to.
This block also houses low-income households, most of whom cannot afford to buy any form of housing, government or private.
I’m here to see if I can meet some of the homeless campers.
Instead, I meet Sally.
Her family lost their government home because they could not afford the monthly mortgage payments after both she and her husband lost their jobs.
Now her husband works, bringing home about 400 US dollars a month.
A quick check on public housing website shows a modest 25 year old two-bedroom resale apartment starts at 150,000 US dollars.
Last week, the housing board called them and gave them an eviction notice, telling them they were now in the position to afford private rental.
“They asked us to go. They asked to leave. You have to leave. You have to go for the market price. My husband said, you want me to stay where? At the sea-side? My husband was so upset.”
Asia Calling requested an interview with the Minister of Community Development, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, but his spokesperson said he was out of the country and unavailable for comment.
Last month, however, Dr Vivian said this in a speech: “If you were a poor person living on this planet, Singapore is the one place where you will have a roof over your head, where you will have food on your table”.
But with increasing income disparities, there are possibly hundreds of Singaporeans living in conditions such as Jennifer and Sally who have fallen under the government’s radar.
Al-Jazeera was dropped from SingTel’s mioTV news service this week. The government insisted it was not dropped because it had done unflattering stories about Singapore but didn’t have enough viewers.