No room in our hearts?

Picture by lightkeeper/

A news report caught my attention the other day. It was about a poor elderly lady giving shelter to an equally elderly man who was homeless. The lady was living in a two-room HDB rental flat with her son and his son. For those unfamiliar with this type of dwelling, it consists of one room which serves as a living area and the other as a bedroom. Elsewhere, it might be called a studio apartment, but this is public housing and reserved for rental to poor families.

The elderly lady supported herself with some part-time work as a cleaner and her son gave her a small allowance whenever he could find work. She also received some financial assistance from the community and the occasional food parcel.

Despite her humble circumstances, she did not fail to notice the stranger sleeping on cardboard sheets at a nearby void deck. She saw that he had worn the same set of unwashed clothes for days. She learned from neighbours that he had been a hawker and when his savings ran out, he sought the help of his adult children. They apparently turned him away.

The elderly lady could not find it in her heart to let this man sleep out in the open. She offered him a space in her spartanly-furnished living room where he has continued to sleep on cardboard sheets but now, away from the elements. He gets to wash regularly and is treated as part of the family.

Reading this story, I must admit with some shame that I do not think I could act in as charitable a way as this woman. I would probably justify my inaction by raising concerns about the man’s mental state or the potential risk posed to my family and property. I might also say that state organisations exist to help destitutes and they would be better cared for by professionals. Finally, I might even argue that my indifference is really an attempt not to undermine the innate need in all of us to be independent and self-sufficient.

Singapore is amongst the world’s wealthiest nations. And yet, we have the dubious honour of also having one of the widest income inequality gaps. We have a public housing policy envied around the world and one of the highest home ownership rates. Yet, many do not have a roof over their heads. Another irony is that we who embrace a faith which preaches love and sacrifice find it so hard to love our neighbour.

We just celebrated Christmas. The Christmas story tells of how Joseph and a very pregnant Mary could not find a room for the night. The Holy Couple was turned away from inn after inn. Jesus, the King of Kings, had to be delivered in a smelly stable. Instead of a clean warm cot, he was placed in an animal’s feeding trough.

I wonder why the angels did not appear before the inn keepers to announce the coming of the Christ Child. Perhaps the choicest room would then have been made available. Perhaps.

Every now and then, the Lord may choose to surprise us with a needy Joseph and Mary. We may have to decide either to extend a hand of compassion or to close our hearts and our homes. At this start of a new year, may each of us choose to open our eyes and hearts to the needs of others. Only then will there be room enough for all.

Picture of homeless children in Manila, Philippines, by Herman R. Lumanog/

At this start of a new year, may each of us choose to open our eyes and hearts to the needs of others. Only then will there be room enough for all.

Exact figures of the homeless in Singapore are hard to come by. Here are some numbers we know of: in 2011, the Ministry of Social and Family Development reported helping to find housing for 264 homeless individuals and 141 homeless families. In Oct 2010, there were 1,318 families living in interim housing set aside for poor families. By 2015, the HDB targets to have 57,000 apartments set aside for rental, up from 47,000 in 2011.

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Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.