A friend to Singapore’s “rough sleepers”

On Friday nights, Kenneth Wong Jun Jie and his friends walk the streets of Singapore.

No, he isn’t out on a jolly jaunt or part of a clandestine assembly. Instead, he seeks out Singapore’s “rough sleepers” or the homeless, and befriends them. Kenneth and his friends are Night Mission Volunteers, a group of young men and women from Catholic Welfare Services who scour the poorest neighbourhoods in our apparent crazy rich, yet partly masked city, for the consciously invisible and nearly forgotten.

Into his second year of accountancy studies, SMU undergraduate Kenneth has gone for more than 80 such “night walks” since the beginning of 2019. Each time, he encounters about 15 “rough sleepers”. Despite his sometimes pressurising school assignments and four CCAs, Kenneth feels that it is his personal duty and responsibility to devote one night a week to look out for those who have fallen through the cracks and don’t even have life’s most basic needs fulfilled; save for a few tatty bags of belongings, creaky reclining plastic chairs with stained, flattened cushions or cardboard boxes that serve as sleeping mats, many of the homeless people he meets have no money, no food and nowhere proper to sleep.

Apart from conversing with, listening to, and trying to understand the predicaments of the people who set up their makeshift homes at sidewalk benches, HDB void decks or open-air pavilions – among whom are destitute elderly, the abused or the physically disabled – volunteers assess individual situations before referring them – with their consent - to appropriate authorities or social welfare organisations for shelter assistance and support.

 “I am fortunate to have a university education, and I know that I want to do more in my life than just pursue academic and career successes. So I decided that no matter how busy or tough university life would be, I will commit time to serve the community,” explained Kenneth decidedly.

For his selfless dedication to helping the vulnerable in our community, SMU and Pilot Pen Singapore conferred Kenneth the Pilot Pen Community Champion Award earlier this year.

In the last six months however, the homeless situation grew so much more severe, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing Circuit Breaker measures put in place. To protect these vulnerable people, more had to be referred to shelters, which in turn took a toll on the shelters themselves, because of limited resources there.

Realising the especially urgent need for food at these shelters, Kenneth and three close friends started a ground-up initiative in June called Food for the Homeless Singapore via Instagram (@foodforthehomeless.sg) to raise funds and buy fresh meals for the homeless residing at temporary shelters in Singapore. Their social media site also offers a platform for contributors to share stories and reflections of the not-so-transparent homeless plight our nation faces.

To date, the ongoing initiative has raised more than $8,000 and paid for groceries, emergency furniture and more importantly, nearly 1,200 meals and counting for 60 homeless beneficiaries from six shelters in half a year – with several shelters still dependent on Food for the Homeless Singapore as their main source for food provision.

Kenneth revealed that his project timeline is indefinite, as long as there is a need. And just like his project, so too is his volunteering commitment.

“I hope to continue volunteering, and eventually work as a strategy consultant, so that I can extend my skills that involve critical thinking or problem solving to provide consultancy services to non-profit organisations on a pro-bono basis and help them tackle more complex societal issues,” said Kenneth.

“I want to inspire others not only to strive for material success but also remember those who are not as fortunate as us. We shouldn’t keep our talents just for ourselves, but use them to support causes we believe in, and make a sustainable social impact in our society.”

“For me, no joy can equate that of helping others,” Kenneth added with a smile.