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He laughs when he shares how one of the homeless he befriends calls him “maggi mee” because of his trendy Korean inspired hairstyle.
Over the Zoom call, Derek Lim, 26, seems like any other young man — he likes going to the gym and hanging out with friends.
But there’s something that sets him apart from most of his peers: Derek spends 15 hours a week with the homeless in Singapore.
Here, he is quick to interrupt me when I say that. “We call them homeless friends, not the homeless,” he corrects me with a smile.
After listening to his stories, I realised that his quiet demeanor conceals a big heart. As Uncle Tan, a homeless friend, tells me: “He is a man of few words but he takes action to help others.”
The full-time social work associate with New Hope Community Services spends most of his free time on weekends and weekday evenings befriending homeless friends as part of the core volunteer team at Homeless Hearts of Singapore.
That is, when he’s not studying for his part-time degree in social work at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
With that much drive, it’s no surprise that Derek was one of the SG Silent Heroes in 2020.
So what keeps him going?
“An important value of mine is gratitude. You only live once. We need to do what we love every day and live the life we want every day. Every day could be our last so I try to make it meaningful for the people around me, including homeless friends,” Derek explains.
His volunteer journey with Homeless Hearts started in late 2014, when he came across a Facebook post about the non-profit organisation. He thought that the opportunity to volunteer was meaningful and immediately signed up.
But during his first outreach sessions, he was very quiet and reserved.
“I did not know what to expect. We were visiting some uncles and I just stood behind all the volunteers. I did not know what to say! But with encouragement and over time, I slowly opened up and became more comfortable talking to them,” Derek explains.
Now, as lead volunteer and outreach coordinator at Homeless Hearts, Derek helps to brief and train volunteers and oversees the outreach programme, where teams of volunteers head to different locations on befriending sessions.
A typical outreach session starts at around 8pm and ends about midnight. Volunteers would take along items such as bottles of water, masks and bread and snacks for distribution — a way to start a conversation with the beneficiaries.
During these outreach sessions, mostly conducted with one person at a time, the volunteers would talk to the homeless friends and get to know them. In light of the COVID-19 situation, the teams now move around in groups of five or less, keep their masks on at all times and have no physical contact like handshakes with homeless friends.
They also take the opportunity to check on their health, provide emotional support and share helpful information such as Covid-19 vaccination protocols. For those who require financial assistance, volunteers often go the extra mile to accompany them to a social service office.
Nevertheless, it is the personal touch that is the most important aspect of their volunteer work.
Explains Derek: “We believe that our homeless friends are not problems to be solved, but people to be loved.”
“Our focus is on befriending. We don’t want to ‘touch-and-go’. We want to build relationships. We don’t want to be seen merely as helpers. We want to be seen as friends.”
These relationships take time to foster but the payoff is often very satisfying, says Derek.
For example, one of the “uncles” whom the volunteers befriended in 2016 managed to move to a rental flat In 2019. Before that, he would give the volunteers tips on how to befriend homeless friends, as well as warn them about potentially dangerous people in the area.
Derek says with a smile: “In 2019, he came back to lead a volunteer group as an Outreach IC. That’s very inspiring. They can also be empowered; they don’t just take but also give back.”
“Some homeless friends give us items from other (non-profit) groups because they say they don’t need them. Some even treat us to a meal. We accept these gestures because we want to show that we are equal. They are not our clients or beneficiaries — just our friends. ”
The closeness between Derek and his homeless friends is apparent as I watch them tease him about inviting them to his wedding when he gets married. Turns out, they know his girlfriend, Jillian, too — she volunteers with Homeless Hearts as well (that’s how Derek met her!).
Spending time with Uncle Tan
One of the homeless friends that I managed to speak with is Uncle Tan. He used to be a rough sleeper for over a decade and when he first met volunteers from Homeless Hearts, he was not convinced that they could help him.
This is because he had tried to find help but was rejected multiple times by different organisations. The experiences left him disheartened.
He tells me: “I gave up hope about getting on with life. At that time, I didn’t even think about having my own flat anymore. I did not trust anybody.”
Then he met Derek. Over time, Derek built a relationship with Uncle Tan and through persistence, he convinced him to apply to join a shelter.
The support that he got from the shelter helped the 64-year-old find a job in the security sector. In December 2019, he moved into his own rental flat.
Recalls Uncle Tan with a smile: “When I first moved out of the shelter, Derek helped me to source for furniture. He helped me to get chairs, a fridge, a television, some cooking utensils and an ironing board.”
On the first day of Chinese New Year in 2020, Derek visited Uncle Tan with pizza, but it wasn’t the food that made the elderly man happy.
Uncle Tan says: “I was so happy. I don’t even have my own son to celebrate Chinese New Year with me. I never expected that Derek would come.”
“We are close and I can communicate with him very well. He helped me a lot. It is rare to find young people willing to walk on the street at close to midnight to look for rough sleepers, spend time with them and encourage them. He doesn’t give empty promises — he will do whatever he can. He sacrificed his own leisure and family time just to be with lonely, old people like us.
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“I am very thankful because if i didn’t meet him, I don’t know where I would be today. I might still be on the streets.”
When I ask him about what drives his passion for volunteering, Derek says: “It makes them very happy that they have friends like us.”
“We should make every day the best for us and for everyone around us — friends, families and communities that we are part of.”
“We don’t have to do big things. We can do small things with a big heart.”