Sunday 13 November 2011

Choosing to sleep in the streets - Rental flatmates fallout

Some elderly people prefer to spend the night outside after falling out with their rental flat roommates
By Elizabeth Soh, Cheryl Ong, The Straits Times, 13 Nov 2011

In the past few years, the elderly woman has had three roommates living with her in her rental flat, each lasting no more than six months.

She is now on the hunt for another, after accusing her current flatmate of locking her out of their one-room unit in the Havelock Road area.

When the woman, who is in her 70s, does not immediately get a new roommate, she takes to sleeping on the streets instead.

She was among about 30 elderly people found regularly spending the night at Sago Lane in Chinatown when The Sunday Times visited the area over the past few weeks.

According to stallholders at food centres nearby, the number of elderly vagrants has almost doubled in the past six months.

Falling out with roommates is a key reason some of them end up sleeping in the streets, said social workers and volunteers.

When The Sunday Times spoke to about 15 of these elderly people at Sago Lane, most claimed initially that they did not have a home to go back to.

Eight later admitted that they live in rental flats nearby but did not want to return because they had quarrelled with their flatmates.

The rest said they preferred to sleep outdoors, or that they had filled their rental flats with so much junk that they have no room to sleep.

These elderly vagrants, mostly men clad in singlets, shorts and slippers, often use large pieces of cardboard as makeshift mattresses. Some simply lie on plastic chairs, exposed to the elements.

Others, like Mr Peh Yong, 78, claimed they were thrown out by their families.

'What to do, I have nowhere to sleep - my son says I'm dirty and smelly and threw me out,' said Mr Peh, who was seen packing his belongings into bags before using them as pillows.

Mr Robert Chua, centre manager at the Chin Swee branch of the Kreta Ayer Senior Activity Centre (SAC), said the problem of squabbling flatmates lies at the root of this phenomenon.

Mr Chua, who has worked there for 10 years, said about half of the 1,200 elderly residents in his area are unhappy with their roommates.

But only 20 per cent of those who encounter such problems move out, sleep in the streets or ask for new roommates. The rest bear with the situation or try to work out their differences.

Common reasons for disputes include unhappiness over poor hygiene, quarrels over noise, and roommates accusing each other of theft.

'Old people are stubborn and they are fixed in their ways, so it's easy for them to disagree and quarrel,' Mr Chua said in Mandarin. 'It is difficult for us to find them a roommate they are happy with.'

Last year, the authorities picked up 339 lone vagrants - up from 217 in 2009. Among this group, 130 were aged 60 and above. Almost 80 per cent of these elderly vagrants were male.

About 40 per cent of the 44,000 rental units in Singapore are occupied by at least one person aged 65 and above.

The Housing Board requires single seniors to apply for a rental flat in pairs to make the best use of space and encourage the roommates to take care of each other. A spokesman said most tenants who apply as singles get along.

Those who cannot find a flatmate are provided with a waiting list of others also applying for rental flats. Applicants then shortlist and contact potential flatmates themselves.

'HDB does not intervene in the pairing up, but reiterates to applicants the importance of mutual respect and tolerance for each other,' said the spokesman.

Tanjong Pagar MP Lily Neo oversees the Kreta Ayer area, which has a large number of elderly residents living in rental flats. She said she is aware of the problem of squabbling roommates and some of them taking to the streets.

The woman mentioned at the start of the story, who is not named in case it jeopardises her chances of getting a new roommate, is one of the constituents she has been helping to rehome over the past 10 years.

'We found out that she was agitating her roommates by bringing home bundles of newspapers and discarded belongings, as well as sitting in the room and mumbling to herself, preventing them from sleeping,' said Dr Neo, who works closely with the SACs and grassroots leaders. She feels that more counsellors to help in the matching process would lead to fewer roommates falling out.

Staff at SACs in other parts of Singapore say they have also seen or heard of disputes between rental flat roommates, and expect the issue to become more common in years to come.

Mr Joseph Cheong, director of SACs and health at Thye Hua Kwan Moral Society, said: 'I think the number of such cases will grow because many seniors live together now and problems start when their original roommates die. Singaporeans are living longer nowadays.'

The Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) said it is aware of the Sago Lane situation, and has a Destitute Persons Service, with staff who visit the area regularly.

A spokesman said organisations such as the SACs, family service centres and community development councils render help and support, and MCYS has alerted them to 'step up outreach and to render appropriate assistance, such as social assistance and befriending services'.

From strangers to best friends

Mr Lee Choo Tong and Mr Wong How Fatt were strangers until they were paired up as roommates three years ago.

Now they get along like old pals who have known each other for decades. They wake up at about 9am every day, and go for exercises at the Chin Swee Senior Activity Centre (CSSAC), near their one-room rental flat in Chinatown.

They have lunch together and spend the rest of the afternoon in their flat, where Mr Wong, 71, reads newspapers to Mr Lee, 74. The two are so close that Mr Wong even takes Mr Lee to a nearby polyclinic for his skin check-up every month and applies medicated cream on his feet every night.

'He keeps scratching and I have to tell him to stop if not it won't get better,' said Mr Wong in Mandarin and Cantonese. In their three years together, Mr Lee's skin condition has improved.

Mr Wong, who is single, said he chose to live in a rental flat as he does not have family here. He was an odd-job worker until he retired over a decade ago. Like Mr Wong, Mr Lee is single and was an odd job labourer.

The pair, who are in good health, were introduced by mutual friends. Mr Wong was then a first-time rental flat applicant, and Mr Lee was having difficulties with his female roommate.

Mr Lee's younger sister trusts Mr Wong so much that she hands over Mr Lee's monthly welfare allowance of $400 to him to manage.

When The Sunday Times visited them last Friday, Mr Wong was preparing soup using dried herbs.

Mr Lee said: 'Wong says we have to drink it all up to stay healthy. I drink it because I like him and like being his roommate very much.'

Meeting a potential flatmate

Cleaner Foo Chap Yig, 64, has had enough of her roommate.

They live together in a one-room rental flat in Chinatown, and she claims the woman - who is about her age - has verbally abused her.

'She found me using a waiting list HDB had provided. I didn't think to check if she was nice or not,' said Madam Foo.

So, in August, the cleaner, who is single, asked staff at the Kreta Ayer Senior Activity Centre if they knew of anyone who might be willing to apply for another rental flat with her.

They introduced her to retiree Lim Ngee Kheng, 82, who is looking to move out of the one-room rental flat she now shares with her son and daughter-in-law. Madam Lim claims they do not care for her.

The meeting went well. Madam Foo said: 'She told me she likes me, that she wants me to be her co-applicant. I think she's very nice and I'm sure she'll not treat me badly.'

Madam Lim was equally pleased with the woman she refers to as 'the Hainanese lady'.

The jovial and neatly groomed woman said in Teochew: 'I had friends recommend me some people in the past, but in the end I didn't know if I could trust them.

'I have been coming to this centre for some years, and I trust the people here. That's why I agreed to meet Madam Foo.'

The two have applied to HDB for a rental flat and are waiting for a reply. But they are already looking forward to life as roommates.

Madam Lim said she is sure Madam Foo will take good care of her, adding: 'I will also take care of her if anything happens. It should be fine. I hope we can have a good relationship, and it's better if we can be friends.'

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