by Patricia Siswandjo on

He had been homeless for a decade, sleeping rough at void decks, food courts, in parks and even in car parks.

But tonight, Mr Tan (not his real name) is getting a good night’s rest.

That’s because he finally has a bed to call his own.

A life of hardship

For 62-year-old Tan, his woes started when he lost his storekeeper job in 2003 during the economic downturn at the height of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) global outbreak.

Tan was the primary caregiver of his ailing mother and was in charge of her medical bills. As an ex-medic, Tan also administered the twice-daily medical injections his mother required.

However, without a source of income, Tan struggled to make ends meet. Medical bills and mortgage arrears began piling up. After his mother passed away, Tan was forced to sell his four-room Housing Development Board (HDB) flat, in 2005.

Thereafter, Tan rented a flat for the next five years, until his resources dried up.

And in 2010, he had no choice but to sleep outside.

Homeless, alone and depressed

For the next 10 years, Tan slept on the streets.

He hid his belongings in public toilets and took showers in swimming complexes.

He was able to fit his possessions – two sets of clothes – into a rucksack. Homeless as he was, Tan was meticulous in ensuring his clothes were kept clean and tidy.

While homeless, Tan was robbed multiple times and had scuffles with other homeless individuals. Whenever he could, Tan would find respite at the public library, where he pored over his favourite publications such as Reader’s Digest and National Geographic.

But his difficult circumstances soon caused him to fall into depression.

“I felt like no-one accepted me,” Tan said. “No-one I knew came to offer me help. Not even my family.”

Although Tan has family – four siblings, two ex-wives and two children – he is not in contact with them.

For the past few years, Tan worked 12-hour shifts as a dishwasher at a restaurant just so he would have a purpose.

But in 2019, things suddenly took a turn for the worse when Tan fell while making his way back from work.

“I was exhausted after a long day of work. I took the bus back to where I was sleeping. It was dark, and raining, and when I alighted the bus, I slipped,” he recalled. “I was too tired to realise my arm hurt and I just went to sleep.”

The next morning, Tan was unable to raise his arm. That was when he realised something was seriously wrong.

With help, he managed to turn his life around

“Being homeless was hard enough,” Tan recalled. “It was even harder with a broken wrist… I had no one to help undress or bathe me, and many times, I felt too uncomfortable to fall asleep.”

Thankfully, in May 2019, volunteers from the Homeless Hearts of Singapore (HHOS) found him on the streets and persuaded him to go to a shelter. Initially, he refused to go with them.

“I wasn’t convinced there were really people who could help me,” Tan explained.

But due to the persistence of one volunteer, Derek Lim, Tan finally caved. “He was a young volunteer, yet he was out almost every night looking after rough sleepers,” said Tan.

In Jun 2019, Tan agreed to stay at the New Hope Transitional Shelter (NHTS).

The New Hope Transitional Shelter is a temporary home to the displaced while arrangements are made for permanent housing. In 2019, volunteers helped to beautify the shelter. Image source: Facebook / New Hope Community Services

Beyond offering him a place to stay, they offered love and acceptance

During his six-month stay at NHTS, Tan went for surgery to mend his broken wrist.

Tan was assigned a Case Manager, a kind woman named Dorothy Lau. “She cared for me,” Tan said.

With Lau’s help, Tan was able to secure an interview with a landlord, who he later began renting from.

Lau also anticipated that he would struggle to pay his rent due to his medical issues. After he went in for his operation, Lau helped write off part of his rental fee.

After recovering, Tan was motivated to upgrade himself so he could be self-reliant. With the little savings from his job as a dishwasher, he signed up for a series of security officer courses, where he obtained his licence.

“I’m already in my 60s, but at least I’m able to educate myself now,” he chortled.

And, seven months ago, Tan’s life finally changed for the better. With the help of HHOS as well as the Social Service Office (SSO) which provides social assistance to those in need, Tan received ComCare financial assistance, and he was granted a one-room HDB flat, which he now shares with a roommate.

After a decade of sleeping rough, Mr Tan was able to move into a rental flat in 2019. Image source: The Pride / Patricia Siswandjo

Tan is proud to announce he is no longer on financial support.

Tan used to see himself as a man with no luck. But his outlook on life has changed since meeting the people at HHOS.

“I feel hopeful now,” he said. “I feel lucky. I have friends who care about me and ask about me.”

In Feb 2020, Lim, the volunteer who first convinced Tan to stay at NHTS, even came over to visit Tan at his flat. “He brought pizza,” Tan recalled fondly.

Furniture in Tan’s rental home. All the electronics in his home, from the microwave to washing machine to fridge, were provided by New Hope Community Services.
Image source: The Pride / Patricia Siswandjo

And on Christmas last year, the HHOS team went the extra mile to organise a party for the beneficiaries. “During the celebration, we played games and had nice food. I felt very happy,” he recalled, smiling. “I had not celebrated Christmas in so many years.”

“Even though it was with a group of total strangers, it was my first time having the feeling of family life again.”

Positive about the future

With NHTS’ help, Tan was also able to secure a job as a security officer.

Today, Tan works part-time as a security guard at an establishment near his rental flat.

When he’s not working, Tan enjoys walking around the scenic paths of his housing estate.
Image source:The Pride / Patricia Siswandjo

However, knowing how difficult life on the streets can be, Tan makes it a point to donate his time to HHOS.

Tan has helped HHOS in fundraising events, and has also assisted his homeless acquaintances in looking for a home.

“I used to sleep next to a 65-year-old man who had returned to Singapore after living overseas for the past 20 years,” he said. “He’s suffered two strokes and it can be difficult for him to verbalise his words,” Tan said.

Working together with NHTS, Tan managed to get his friend an interview for a flat. “He’s still in NHTS now, but is waiting for approval for a flat of his own.”

Beyond that, the newly optimistic Tan has hopes for his own future. He currently shares his rental flat on a three-year lease, but hopes that he will be able to make enough to live on his own at some stage.

“I hope I have a place to call my own home one day,” he said.