Community Connect Part 3 – The Essence: Building Relationships and Believing in Change

When Think City devised the Community Connect project it was seemingly rather straightforward, but it has not been a walk in the park. This third installment of the Community Connect blog series explores the challenges and lessons learned in implementing this pilot project.

Chronic homelessness can destroy health, hope and dignity. So naturally, in the face of such daunting circumstances, it would be easy to give up, wouldn’t it? Just ask George* because that was what he did. After 17 years on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, George gave up on even trying.

George grew up in Penang and came to Kuala Lumpur looking for greener pastures in 2002. Like many of our street friends, childhood trauma and abuse led to health issues, a pattern of bad choices and, eventually, homelessness.

Through projects such as Community Connect, George has found lending ears and helping hands. We believe the relationship-building with George and his other street friends has been key to reconnecting to themselves as many believe they have lost their way in life. The Community Connect project, which is a pilot project by Think City and funded by Citi Foundation, places effort and focuses on bringing businesses and street friends together on a platform that can help benefit each other. Businesses can offer jobs to hard working street friends and street friends can work and live in the area they rough sleep. When Think City devised this project it sounded quite straightforward. Except it has not been a walk in the park.

To learn a bit more about both businesses and street friends, we interviewed local shop owners and those sleeping rough one by one to get a better picture of homelessness. For businesses, we focused on their experiences with the homeless community in addition to their attitudes. For the Street Friends, we focused on the homeless experience, how they became homeless, the main struggles they experienced through homelessness and their desires to end their employment. A database of street friends and businesses was created to understand trends in the issues that homeless people face and what we could do to best help them. Meanwhile, the data for businesses showed common problems they faced, so we could understand how to help solve them.

We spoke to staff, of all rankings, from businesses. From hotels to restaurants to money changers, we were able to gather a thorough idea of how people experiencing homelessness are viewed. Of course, this meant that we were able to hear very different opinions, too. Some individuals held stigmatised views, labelling all homeless people as ‘lazy’, ‘substance abusers’ or ‘criminals’. However, there were also many who empathised with our street friends. Upon asking the businesses how they were affected by homelessness, we learnt that they worried how their customers would perceive the area, they were worried about fighting and the aggression that sometimes comes hand-in-hand with substance abuse. Despite these concerns, many that we spoke to were open to looking for solutions, appreciating the efforts of giving our street friends the opportunity to work, and wanted to be included in our journey. Listening to the businesses share their interest in helping street friends truly restored our hope in humanity.

Many of our street friends were keen to re-enter work. So, we asked the same question many are thinking: “Why haven’t you started working then?”

This question came with a variety of answers. Some had been terminated from employment because of disability, some did not have their identity cards, some lacked skills and were not given an opportunity, some were held back by the stereotypes employers had of their homeless status and left them unemployable. Some had become so entrenched in their homelessness that they did not believe they were capable or deserving of work. These are just a few examples of ‘why?’ Despite this, as mentioned, many street friends did and do want to enter the workforce. Many are excited by the prospect of having stability, of reclaiming themselves and ending their homelessness.

What now? The street cleaning programme under Community Connect has been up and running for three months, where Street Friends are engaged to participate in beautifying the Bangkok Bank area. This re-integrates them into a regular working pattern to prepare them for employment. We are now working with local businesses to find casual jobs that the Street Friends can engage in. We are also cross-referencing skills, abilities, and personalities to make it possible to give our street friends opportunity to find long-term meaningful employment. So what are the next steps? We are continuing our efforts and if you are in the area, look out for Community Connect’s bright yellow t-shirts. Or, check back here to read more about Community Connect and check if George* has found a part-time job.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of our street friends

If you think others might find this blog useful, feel free to share.

#CommunityConnectKL #homelessnessKL #streetfriends

@mythinkcity @citi @yellowhouseKL