With the news that Malaysia’s Covid-19 vaccination program should begin some time in March, The Reflexive City podcast looked at some of the ways that cities around the world have been working to extend those vaccination programmes to their homeless populations.
We also spoke to Aishwariya Krishna Kumar, a Senior Executive on Think City’s Social Resilience team, about some of Think City’s work with Malaysia’s urban homeless and its role in establishing the Homeless Services Registry, a database that Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can use to find support services for vulnerable individuals living on the streets.
Can you tell us about some of the homelessness-related activities and projects that Think City is involved with?
Aishwariya K: We’ve been involved in a few ways, from a research and understanding point of view. We have a paper that we wrote a few years ago that outlines the current landscape on policy and practice relating to homelessness. In that paper, there were international best practices, assessments of the causes of homelessness, current interventions and a general overview of the Malaysian situation. After that paper, we started doing a lot of stakeholder engagement and meeting people. And from that, the next big step was a Registry Week survey, which was a multi-night event where Think City and over 20 NGOs and over 140 volunteers walked the streets to interview people experiencing homelessness. Out of that came a few pilot projects, which included a white paper on the concept of Housing First, a Community Connect programme, a pilot programme, and also a services registry database.
Why did Think City decide to engage with the problem of urban homelessness?
Aishwariya K: When Think City first started in Kuala Lumpur, our focus was on rejuvenating the heritage core and bringing people back. We were doing this primarily through space activation and public realm improvement projects. For example, the Laneway Improvement programme. Fundamentally, no matter how pretty or active you make a place, people will not come if they feel uncomfortable or if they don’t feel safe. So, we wanted to understand why people weren’t feeling safe, why they weren’t comfortable coming to [those] spaces.
[We conducted] a survey [of] over 500 people. Some of the key takeaways [were] that hygiene and sanitation came up as an issue. And linked to this, the presence of people who are experiencing homelessness in these spaces. There was a perception that [the] presence [of homeless people] made the area feel unsafe. That’s when we started to understand that we needed to look into it in relation to our projects [and] urban community resilience.
You mentioned that Registry Week report, which was published in 2019. I understand that the purpose of that study was to achieve a better understanding of the vulnerability levels of people experiencing homelessness, at an individual level. To better understand their experience and needs and wants that they have. Can you tell us a little bit about the findings of that report?
Aishwariya K: The tool that we used was adapted from a tool that Community Solutions in the US used, [taking] a very data-driven approach to addressing homelessness. In this survey tool, there were five key areas. History of housing and homelessness. Risk and daily functioning. Socialization and daily functioning, as well as physical and mental health questions. The answers to all these questions provides us with a score that helps us assess the level of vulnerability of a person.
From the score, you could categorize a person into three different categories of low, medium, and high vulnerability. We found was that 30% to 35% were in the high vulnerability category. And I think close to 50% or 60% were in the moderate vulnerability category, which indicated that we needed to do something rather urgently because…the people in these categories were facing significant risks by being on the streets, either because of health conditions or because they had faced significant trauma.
What kind of interventions or assistance did the reports suggest that those respondents needed?
Aishwariya K: I think the most important thing we realized was that we didn’t really have a referral system in place. Which was what Community Solutions had. [If] they knew somebody had an issue – say they needed counselling or a place to stay for the night – they could refer that person [for] the help that they needed. We didn’t have that in place.
The second thing that came out of that [Registry Week] exercise was that we would try and advocate for our champion, the Housing First concept, which is well-received in Europe and in parts of North America, but is a relatively new concept here. [By that], I don’t mean temporary or transition housing, but more permanent housing with well-developed support systems.
The third thing that came out of it was that we needed to try more innovative approaches. One of our pilot programmes post registry week was the Community Connect programme, where we experimented with finding local jobs for people who were on the streets, trying to match them to jobs in the area, to see [what outcomes it produced].
You mentioned the Homeless Services Registry. Can you explain what it is and how Think City is involved with it?
Aishwariya K: [As I mentioned], from the Registry Week exercise, we realized that we needed a referral system. This wasn’t something new. A lot of people had already pointed out that there were lots of gaps that needed to be addressed. There were lots of NGOs working on – say – providing food but there were lots of gaps in terms of – say – mental health counselling and things like that. An NGO that had already started this work was Kedai Jalanan UM. We reached out to them [for their] database and together with our partner NGOhub, we continued to update the database and integrate it into NGOhub’s website [where] it could be used as a continually updated referrals tool and as a database for others to use. The challenge is that [the work] wrapped up at the start of the Covid pandemic. Once operations go back to normal, then maybe the database can be used [to fulfil its potential].
On the subject of Covid-19: what effect has the last 12 months of the pandemic had on the numbers of people experiencing or facing homelessness?
Aishwariya K: It’s hard to say because the numbers fluctuate a lot. It’s a very transient population. At the start of the pandemic, we know that there were many people on the streets. This is based on information from our NGO partners. But a few weeks ago, we found out that the numbers are significantly less, in that the attention now has shifted to the PPRs (Program Perumahan Rakyat), and the urban poor.
What about the organisations working with those communities? What are some of the practical and logistical issues that organisations working with the homeless have faced during the pandemic?
Aishwariya K: They’ve had to change how they operate because they have to be compliant with the SOPs [standard operating procedures] while distributing aid. There was a lot of confusion in the beginning. Especially because of the lack of communication and clear guidelines. Now the NGOs are operating using the National Disaster Management Agency (NADMA) SOP. It’s also a very volunteer-driven activity. So, the fact that now, with all the SOPs, you have to cut back on how many people you can have with you, that significantly affects your operations.
How are these conditions shaping Think City’s plans to work with the homeless in 2021?
Aishwariya K: For 2021, Think City plans on doing more advocacy work and knowledge sharing, especially [in terms of] facilitating links and resources where we can. For example, the research work that we’ve done is of interest to different parties. We shared the white paper on Housing First with some NGOs who are interested in setting up a Housing First initiative in KL. We’ll also continue our work with the registry database and adapt it to the situation. And we’ll continue to talk and [champion the issues].
You can listen to an audio version of this interview on The Reflexive City podcast.