betty July 6, 2022

SINGAPORE – At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of people here looking for shelter went up sharply.

Those working here but living in Johor Bahru or Batam found themselves stranded as borders closed, while those who had been sleeping rough at void decks or public areas could no longer do so when the circuit breaker period started in April 2020.

“We were overwhelmed and all four of our night shelters filled up. We opened an emergency one but that was full too,” Dr Michael Thio, chairman of the Catholic Welfare Services, told The Straits Times.

This was also the case for other groups who had been working to help rough sleepers here.

Amid the chaos, some churches and mosques opened up as temporary shelters – or Safe Sound Sleeping Places (S3Ps) – when the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) put out an urgent call for help in April 2020.

Members of the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (Peers) Network also chipped in by expanding their services, canvassing other organisations to help, offering their knowledge, and befriending the rough sleepers.

At its peak, the capacity of shelter spaces increased to 920 in 45 S3Ps, as compared with 100 in seven S3Ps before the pandemic.

The Peers network, set up by MSF in July 2019, is a collaboration among community partners, social service agencies and government agencies to support rough sleepers. It now has 55 members.

While the situation eventually abated, the shared experience left some lasting impact.

More collaborations, partnerships, and friendships were forged, said Pastor Rick Toh from Yio Chu Kang Chapel, who is acting chief executive and vice-chairman of Bless Community Services.

Two churches that had opened their doors as S3Ps have each intentionally set aside, during their recent renovations, a space that can act as temporary night shelter when needed, he added.

For its efforts in addressing the needs of people requiring shelter and assistance amid the pandemic, the Peers network received the Star Partner Award at the Covid Public Sector Transformation Awards ceremony on Wednesday (July 6).

The award recognises citizens, non-government organisations, trade unions, volunteer groups or companies who have contributed to better outcomes for the public service.

Dr Thio noted that during the pandemic people were distressed, in pain or suffering.

He said: “But one good, positive outcome was that it provided an opportunity for the network to come together, and we are now in a better position to support rough sleepers in their journey to find permanent housing.”