He opens his home to strangers who are going through a difficult time.
Since he moved into his four-room HDB flat in a mature estate, Kenneth Heng and his wife Zi Ying have hosted people in need – from a youth who fell out with his family, to a Pakistani family who travelled to Singapore for their son’s cancer treatment.
Heng and his wife had learned about a 24-year-old Pakistani man, E, who had stage 4 rectal cancer and was in Singapore seeking treatment, accompanied by his mother. Initially, they stayed in a hostel. However, the hostel could only accommodate them for a month and the treatment was three months long.
As Heng’s flat was next to a lift lobby and five minutes from the hospital, their home was in an ideal position for the Pakistani family. They agreed on the living arrangements, and E and his mother moved in a few days before Christmas in 2018.
E’s mother’s way of showing her gratefulness and love was to regularly cook up a storm in the kitchen. “It was a test of our Singaporean inclinations for order and cleanliness, but with language being a barrier, it was challenging to communicate this to his mother,” Heng recalls.
Sadly, a few days after a joyous Christmas celebration together, E passed away suddenly. Together with friends, Heng helped to work out the administration arrangements, cover the costs of the repatriation and the couple took turns to spend time with E’s mother as she grieved.
Heng says: “We could not imagine how difficult it would have been if E and his mother had not found anybody they could trust in Singapore. We saw our neighbours and friends step forward to render support too.”
Starting a network of open homes
But Heng, 31, isn’t content with opening just his home to others.
With Abraham Yeo of Homeless Hearts of Singapore, he started the Open Home Network (OHN) in June 2020. It is a ground-up, community project that aims to educate and equip families to offer shelter to those who are in trouble, Heng tells The Pride.
“It is a very direct expression of helping the homeless by galvanising and preparing families to open their homes to persons who are experiencing crisis,” explains Heng, who is the founder of Solve n+1, a social enterprise.
OHN is a collaboration with Homeless Hearts and A Safe Place, both organisations that work with the homeless in Singapore. OHN operates alongside family service centres and assists social workers in finding a host family for the person-in-crisis, and is run largely by volunteers.
A ground-up initiative to help the homeless
Offering your home as a shelter to a stranger rent-free does come with valid concerns, so OHN focuses on educating and preparing host families.
“We encourage potential host families to speak with every member of their household to make sure everyone is comfortable with the idea, and to talk to their friends to get their buy-in as well,” Heng tells The Pride.
The recruitment process is designed to get every family to understand what hosting entails. These are done through modules sent via WhatsApp, with narratives to explain and questions for them to consider.
There are some fundamentals OHN sticks to, says Heng. “We don’t want to be too prescriptive about hosting to ensure that they understand that hosting is person-focused. Every person is unique, every crisis is unique and every time support is rendered, it will be different.”
When it started in June, OHN appealed for families to come forward if they were willing to extend their hospitality to those who were seeking refuge and a safe place to stay. At first, 160 families expressed interest. However, these were whittled down to 10 families after they went through the rigorous recruitment process.
Explains Heng: “We see this as a good thing because they are thinking seriously about what it takes to host someone. If you’re not prepared, you could walk away from this experience feeling like a failure.”
Since then, OHN sees about one new family a week stepping forward to offer their space. Currently there are 13 families actively hosting, says Heng.
The most common question the OHN team gets is “how long do I have to host?”
This is where the OHN team tries to orientate host families to a different mindset, says Heng. While they try to facilitate stays to be from six months to a year, there is no hard and fast answer to this because of the nature of the crisis each person faces.
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Many of the problems and broken relationships that drove them away from their homes are not easily resolved.
“We try to focus on building relationships instead,” Heng says.
During the recruitment process, some families start off being very enthusiastic, ready to transfer their spare room into a hotel-standard guest room. This is where OHN case workers would try to help them understand that the people seeking help tend to come from unsafe homes, and have no reference point on what a stable home looks like. So while setting up a comfortable place is part of the deal, the emphasis is more on providing a safe space to stay.
In other words, it is more important to prepare an emotional haven rather than physical space.
There are also others who assume that to host a person requires a big house. That’s not always true. Heng says OHN has a family of six living in a five-room HDB flat offering to host.
“Sometimes an openness of heart is all that is needed – even if it’s just a couch or a tatami mat.”
The key to matching a host family to the person who needs help goes beyond the type of dwelling, of course.
“It’s like dating. No one holds hands on the first date. It can take up to three meet-ups between the host family and beneficiary for them to decide on whether it is a comfortable fit,” says Heng.
Host families come from different religious and racial backgrounds, and dwelling types range from landed property to three-room flats. The youngest person OHN has helped is 18, and the oldest is 70.
Explains Heng: “We don’t have a first-come-first-served approach, we try to match according to who we think will benefit from the relationship the most. Some families are more suited to supporting a youth because they are more wired that way, while some have a heart for the elderly.”
Staying with host families is free, though many do want to pay for some part of their lodging. This is negotiated between the two parties, based on their relationship and mutual understanding. For example, the person could pay for their share of the utilities if they are working and drawing a salary. “This really depends on the relationship they have with the host – we try not to influence how this turns out,” Heng says.
Recreating the kampung spirit
While OHN was started as part of a bigger programme called the Bezer Initiative, Heng’s efforts are a result of his wanting to rekindle the kampung spirit in Singapore of pre-independence days.
“Things were more communal back then. It allowed us as a nation to be strong because we shared in each other’s problems. A lot has changed due to affluence, and it is challenging to have communal living with the structure we have today.”
He says: “I got to know my neighbours when I borrowed their can opener. That was how I started a conversation with them.”
Now, Heng sometimes helps his neighbour’s children with their homework and the couple, who have no children, occasionally get a free meal when the neighbours cook some extra food.
“That’s the kampung spirit that we lack today in most of Singapore,” says Heng. “We want to recreate a 21st century kampung even though we live behind concrete walls. That’s the heart of what we try to establish with all our families.”
Before OHN started, Heng spent a year putting together a community White Paper on this initiative. Homelessness is a complicated issue – even the term “homeless” is a bit of a misnomer as many who sleep rough actually have an address on their identity card.
But there are many reasons why they don’t or can’t live there, as “their own home is no longer a safe one,” Heng says.
The people OHN has helped have wide-ranging reasons for not being able to live in their home – domestic violence, mothers with unsupported pregnancies and hoarding families are just some of them.
It is these “invisible homeless” that are not covered by any comprehensive study so far and Heng hopes that more data will become available. “The family violence cases are so severe, I wonder how long did it take to get to this level. If these persons had had friends to help them in the past, would they have been able to intervene?”
Currently, OHN’s referrals are growing while their list of host families are insufficient to meet the demand. Those that do not get matched to a host family are referred to shelters, Safe Sound Sleeping Places (S3Ps), or homes. And OHN is putting out the call for more host families.
“As long we have homes, we will be open for as long as we can,” says Heng.
“Maybe it all starts with borrowing a can opener, or cooking an extra portion of a meal to share with your neighbour. I think when we start there, then open homes become less far-fetched.”