“You’re going to buy N95 facemasks at RM7.50 per piece for the homeless? Aiyerr, homeless people give the cheap, normal facemasks enough already la.”
I was rudely taken aback by my friend’s remark when I sincerely told her of my intention to help the homeless people of Klang and Port Klang have a better night’s sleep as the hazardous haze started to choke us.
The Air Pollution Index in the Klang area had shot up to as high as 358. Schools were closed to protect the fragile lungs of our children.
In the comfort of my four walls, I could still taste smog at the back of my throat. On Friday morning, I woke up to the smell of a smoker’s breath.
The beautiful tree-lined view of the NKVE highway that I faithfully take to work every morning looked like a seedy lounge. No matter how many times I rubbed my eyes, the grey filter would not go away.
If I could not stand the smell of haze in my room — my room that has four walls, a solid door, and three tightly shut windows (I am investigating a possibility of a crack in my window, somewhere) — how were the poor homeless people coping with the haze?
My one time volunteering with Reach Out Klang, an NGO that feeds the poor and homeless, was enough to show me the squalor in which the homeless live in. They pitch their cardboard mattresses on alleyways, abandoned buildings, the courtyard of temples, in open-air food courts that are closed for the night. They have a roof over their heads to shield them from the rain, but no walls nor windows to protect them from the threat of mosquitoes, people, diseases, or haze.
But does that make them second-class citizens? Does our abundance of concrete surrounding us make us of higher value? Are they not worthy of a proper facemask to protect them from asthma, lung diseases, dry cough or whatever illness the haze may bring? Or maybe there is a caste system in Malaysia that I’ve not heard of?
Let’s mull upon that as we enjoy the haze-free air the air conditioner in our home, car, and shopping malls give us.
The shocking remark that slipped out of my friend’s lips was possibly because she simply does not believe in feeding the homeless. She says it encourages them to be lazy, thus keeping them in a loop of poverty and homelessness.
But anyone who has been on the streets for at least once to actually meet and speak to these people who have fade into the background of society knows that sometimes, life is not as simple as plain laziness.
Some of them are on the streets because they made bad life decisions and can’t find a way out, some have brains that are wired differently from what society deems ‘normal’, some were abandoned and have nowhere to go.
Don’t forget, these are also the same people who go under the hot sun to pick up our discarded Coca Cola bottles and recycle it for pittance.
On that fateful night with Reach Out Klang, I had the honour to have a very interesting conversation with a middle-aged man who had been sleeping on cold metal hawker stall tables. We often assume the homeless to be uneducated, uncivilised and all the many different ‘un-s’, but this shabby man in tattered clothes greeted us with the grace, politeness, and humbleness of a dignified man.
He stood up when he saw our car arriving, greeted us hello, shook our hands, and engaged us in conversation. I can’t remember what we talked about, but I will never forget the shame I felt for underestimating him when I heard his deep voice spill out perfect, fluent English.
I later learnt that he was once a lawyer and had lost everything, including his home, when his family left him.
Not having a home does not seem normal to us (don’t get me started on what is deemed ‘normal’), but can the homeless ever be integrated into mainstream society? I believe they can, if they have the help and know-how. NGOs like Reach Out Klang can help rehabilitate these people and connect them to job opportunities, but this will only work if and only if the homeless person wants to get out of the cycle of poverty.
We can provide them with the tools and knowledge, but they have to actually use it. We can give them all the N95 face masks they need, but they have to put it on themselves. Then, having walls or not becomes a choice, not a result of their misfortune.
Perhaps being homeless is what they enjoy, not to have the boundaries of walls, to be able to roam free wherever they want. Perhaps the mosquitoes do not bother them, nor does the haze.
‘The Haze and the Homeless’ was originally written for Loyar Burok on 21 March 2014. This opinion piece was subsequently published by The Malay Mail and Yahoo News Malaysia.