Thursday, 3 September 2015

Fresh Start Housing Scheme: New hope for families with new grant

By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 30 Aug 2015

Families who may have sold their flats and are living in rental housing will soon get a Fresh Start Housing Grant to help buy their own two-room flats, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced during the National Day Rally last week.

They will also get counselling to resolve family, employment and other problems they may be facing. He said the grant will be given if they show they are determined to get back on their feet.

Project 4650 in Siglap has been quietly helping down-and- out families get a fresh start for the past three years. Social service agency Pave and various community groups have been working together to help families without homes become self-reliant, sorting out their housing, employment and childcare needs.

The families live in the Housing Board's Interim Rental Housing (IRH) blocks while awaiting more permanent homes in rental flats or flats of their own.

Some arrived in the IRH after selling their flats when they could not cope with mortgage arrears. Others include downgraders waiting for smaller flats being built or those waiting for rental flats.

The IRH scheme was introduced in 2009 to provide temporary shelter for financially strapped families with nowhere to live. The rule for most is that two families share a unit, usually a three-bedroom flat. Families are matched by race, religion and family size. Utility bills are split between the families.

Mired in numerous problems, some are among Singapore's poorest families, with a monthly per capita income of less than $150 when they first moved in.

Over the past three years, most of the 1,000 or so families in the two blocks have moved out. About half have gone to rental flats and a third now have their own homes - a distant dream when they first moved in.

To Pave executive director Sudha Nair, the new Fresh Start Housing Grant is a "fantastic scheme" that will give some of the remaining residents the leg up they need.

"It's like the collective voice of these blocks has been heard," she says.

Finding the way home: Four months short of his 21st birthday, Gary Tay is still too young to vote. Yet, he is already a...
Posted by The Straits Times on Sunday, August 30, 2015

Finding the way home
Project aims to help families who are down pick themselves up and be self-reliant
By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 30 Aug 2015

Four months short of his 21st birthday, Gary Tay is still too young to vote. Yet, he is already a father.

Chubby, cheerful Stacey was born last October. Mr Tay's wife, Christy Asiddao, a Filipina who grew up in Singapore, was just 17 when she gave birth.

Mr Tay, who dropped out of school after his N levels, works full time as a photographer on Sentosa to support his young family.

His wife, who is on a Long Term Visit Pass, lost her job as a waitress last month. She says the restaurant lost some local workers and could not keep foreigners because of tightened foreign worker quotas.

Her visit pass is up for renewal next month and she needs a new job. Baby Stacey's childcare subsidies also need periodic renewal.

Not yet quite adults themselves, both husband and wife do not have enough parental support. Helping them sort through their various problems are professionals from Pave, a social work agency. The couple live in an HDB "interim rental housing" (IRH) block in Siglap. Like them, the other residents of the subsidised rental flats do not have homes of their own and have nowhere else to live.

Unlike regular HDB rental flats whose occupants can stay indefinitely, the IRH scheme is meant to be temporary accommodation while families sort out the complex challenges they face and move on to more permanent homes, hopefully within a year. But many stay longer, short of cash and support. Help is available, but navigating the schemes can be hard.

Over the past three years, a community project at two IRH blocks in Siglap has given families new hope. It is led by Pave with support from more than 10 community groups and state agencies. The local South East Community Development Council (SE CDC) acts as the key coordinator.

"Many of the families who move into the IRH have been homeless at some point and feel they may never own their own homes again, but this need not be the case," says Pave executive director Sudha Nair, who leads the team.

Since "Project 4650" - named after the blocks - was started in 2012, about 1,000 households have called Blocks 46 and 50 home. Most have since moved out to more permanent rental flats, with a small but significant one in three families achieving what they never thought possible - being home owners again.

The project was initiated by the area's Member of Parliament, Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman, a qualified social worker and Mayor of South East District.

Also Minister of State for National Development, in 2009 he worked on the HDB team that conceived the IRH scheme to deal with some of the most down-and-out cases seeking help with housing.

The idea was to provide rental flats but encourage families to work towards moving out to more permanent homes.

Many families had sold their homes to pay debts and bills. Under HDB rules, those who have sold a flat cannot apply for subsidised rental housing for 30 months after the sale. Before arriving at the IRH, some would have moved many times, staying with relatives or friends for weeks or months.

"With the IRH project, they had a roof over their heads, but the nature and complexity of the problems these families were facing were not properly understood by the community," says Dr Maliki.

He started by getting social workers in three Family Service Centres to help these families but soon realised that due to the nature of the cases, proximity of social services to the families was critical.

He convinced the Ministry of Social and Family Development to fund a dedicated social service agency to work onsite with the families.

"By the time they come to the IRH, these families may have exhausted a lot of the goodwill of family and friends. Many were grappling with uncertainty," he says. "We needed social workers to be anchored in the community to show them support."

Pave, an Ang Mo Kio agency best known for its family violence work, set up office at the Siglap Community Centre, right next to the two blocks. It found many families struggling with three or more underlying problems - short of money, having difficulty with childcare or caregiving arrangements, or dealing with health issues. Also, the children, though living in the east, may still be attending school in the west where they used to live. Single parents and those with mental illnesses had their own sets of difficulties.

The social workers aim to increase the "social functioning" of these families, Dr Nair says. This means, among other things, ensuring children are well looked after, helping the adults with pressing problems, getting appropriate aid, securing better jobs, managing finances better and setting a target to get a flat, if they can afford one.

Fostering self-reliance is important, especially since many families are still young. "The role of social work agencies is not just to connect residents to state aid but to resolve the problems that made them depend on aid in the first place," says Dr Nair.

Social worker Nazeema Bassir Marican says she starts by asking families about their hopes and dreams. "We focus on hopes and goals, not problems," she says. "And then draw up plans to achieve them."

Pave estimates it takes an average of nine months to help a family take the necessary steps to self-reliance.

While families seeking emergency help are not turned away, they have to do their part for the collaboration to work long term. "You have a right to decide if you want to help yourself," says Dr Nair. "But you cannot expect to get handouts continuously unless you work to improve your situation."

General manager Kia Siang Wei of the SE CDC says it is this "focus on personal effort and responsibility" which sets Pave's work apart. "Rather than just provide handouts, Pave takes the harder route, explaining to these families how they can achieve self-reliance."

So instead of automatic Giro transfers from state and charity social assistance schemes, clients get the money only if they comply with what they had agreed to do. For instance, there is help available from The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund, but a family must show that the children are attending school regularly.

Such tough love is fraught with the risk of failure and, indeed, some families rebuff the Pave social workers and say they would rather approach other agencies where it might be easier to get aid.

One man was told he would help his family considerably if he cut his monthly cigarette bill of $330 and Internet charges of $300. He refused. The Pave social worker persisted in calling once a month, just to stay in touch. "The man would often scold my colleague and bang the phone down," says Dr Nair.

But after eight months, he turned up at Pave's office to apologise and seek help. "He had a health scare and wanted to quit smoking. He also wanted to work towards getting a new home," says Dr Nair. It proved to be the turning point.

Arrangements have also been made to help meet the housing, healthcare, employment and childcare needs of residents.

The Pave social workers meet HDB officers at least once a month to work on clients' housing issues and to explain why a family may deserve help despite not meeting HDB's criteria. An HDB spokesman said: "Through these meetings and house visits with social workers, our officers gain a better understanding of the key issues faced by the households."

The CDC also roped in other agencies - including the various Siglap grassroots groups, the Workforce Development Agency and the local Social Service Office. The local grassroots help organise house visits and work with single mothers, among other groups. Malay self- help group Mendaki holds parenting workshops and the Children's Society counsels children with anger-management issues.

People living in the area have pitched in as volunteers. Among the key volunteer-run programmes is the Homework Cafe, where children from the IRH blocks get help with school work.

Mr Lim Yuan Qing, 28, who is studying for a master's degree, has been a regular at the Homework Cafe. He got to know about Project 4650 when he called the CDC to ask about volunteer projects that "mitigate income inequality".

"Before visiting the blocks, I had no idea there was so much need at our doorstep," says the son of a bank officer who grew up in a five-room HDB flat in nearby Fengshan. "Instead of just being concerned about people being left behind, I wanted to help out."

Still, turning lives around is hard work. For every family that successfully relocates to their own home, there are others that move to a rental flat or stay on at the IRH.

Young father Gary Tay, for example, has been living in the Siglap IRH block for more than three years. He moved there in 2012 with his grandmother and two older brothers after their father sold their flat to invest in business.

He says their mother left them when they were small and they were raised by their grandmother, as their father had a second family. The brothers were barely out of their teens when their girlfriends got pregnant. At different times, each lived in the IRH flat with his young family. Last year, the two older brothers and their girlfriends were arrested for having drugs in the flat.

Mr Tay, a hands-on dad when he is home from work, is determined to carve out a different path for his family. Pave social worker Ng Huei Min has been helping to smooth the journey for them.

She first helped Mr Tay's 76-year-old grandmother move to her daughter's place as she was keen to live with her daughter. Then she helped Mr Tay take over the IRH flat, sought aid from the Social Service Office when he was in NS and helped him attend training to improve his job prospects. When his wife was ready to work this June, Ms Ng sourced for infant care.

"We don't apply for them, but we apply with them - showing them how to navigate the processes, so they can do it on their own should the need arise again," says Ms Ng.

Mr Tay is now eager to get a new home. With the grants available for first-time buyers, he reckons his family can get a new home in a year or two. "I just want to ensure that my daughter gets a better life than I did," he says, sitting in his pink-walled bedroom surrounded by photos of little Stacey. "And I am willing to work towards that."

Family sees light at the end of dark tunnel
By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 30 Aug 2015

Getting the keys to a new flat is no guarantee that you can move in.

Madam Angelia Tan's two-room flat in Punggol was ready in late 2012. It came with no fixtures such as kitchen cabinets and she did not have the $3,000 needed for renovations before she could move in.

The mother of four had been living at the Siglap IRH with her family ever since they sold their four-room flat in Jurong because of mounting mortgage arrears.

Her husband, who had a longtime alcohol problem, refused to pay the monthly mortgage, she says. He preferred to spend his money on beer and 4-D bets.

Before her eldest child began working last year, the family survived on the $1,000 that Madam Tan, 48, earned as a packer in a logistics company.

Her husband, 53, was a security guard before becoming a cleaner, but kept his earnings to himself. "He would give us around $10 a day," says Madam Tan.

They were referred to Pave in 2012, when they fell behind on the rent for their IRH flat. The agency helped them draw up instalment plans and sourced for rental vouchers.

When Pave learnt about the family's predicament with their new flat, its social workers approached the South East Community Development Council which contacted a community group called Caring Angels, which paid for the renovation.

"It's important for social work agencies to be resourceful, to have their own networks to tap in times of need," says Pave social worker Nazeema Bassir Marican, who worked with the family.

Life in the new flat did not have the most auspicious start. Shortly after they moved in, Madam Tan's husband fell from a ladder while at work, suffered a brain injury and has been in a nursing home since.

Pave is now helping Madam Tan navigate the unfamiliar territory of managing his care needs and the family's financial affairs.

The children, however, are doing well. The eldest, 24, is a polytechnic diploma holder. She works at a childcare centre and is also studying for a certificate in early childhood education.

The older son, 21, has been accepted to study chemical engineering at Nanyang Technological University. The two other children - aged 22 and 17 - are polytechnic students with bursaries.

Sitting in the living room of their new flat, the Singapore flag draped outside their window, Madam Tan lets on that life is easier these days.

When the children were young, she made ends meet by working a variety of part-time jobs - from being an ironing lady to a helper at her daughter's school canteen - to make around $400 per month. She started working full time only after moving to Siglap.

Her eldest child recalls having to share three packets of rice among the five of them.

"And when the electricity was cut off because we could not pay, we would study by candlelight."

People have asked Madam Tan why she did not send her kids out to work earlier to make ends meet. She says: "They worked during holidays, but only through education can they get a good life."

Her children call her a "model mother".

The flat may be small, but she is not complaining. "It will be perfect for me in my old age," she says.

Luxury is a bathroom to call your own
From sleeping on the beach and in a van, single mum now looks forward to own flat
By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 30 Aug 2015

A fleeting, furtive affair at the office sent Shidah's quiet comfortable life into a tragic tailspin.

Her husband left her, sold their marital flat in Marsiling and took their two children with him to his native Malaysia.

She turned to her abusive lover, only to end up homeless, pregnant with twins, sleeping on the beach and in a van.

But barely three years on, the 39-year-old has turned her life around and is on her way to owning a four-room Housing Board flat.

Sitting in the living room of her spartan interim rental flat in Siglap, as her 21/2-year-old twins play nearby, the articulate woman exudes an air of quiet confidence.

"It finally feels like my bad times are ending. And I can't wait to get my new home," she says.

Problems began when Ms Shidah, an administrative assistant, had an affair with a colleague in May 2010. When she tried to end it, her lover told her family about their illicit liaison and her marriage was over.

She had paid much of the cost of her marital flat but, mired in shame, she says, she handed her husband all the profit from the sale. Their children, now 15 and five, are with him in Malaysia.

"No one in my family was divorced, so what happened was quite a scandal," she says. Her parents were long dead and she was estranged from her only sibling.

Without a roof over her head, she says she had no choice but to move in with her boyfriend and his family.

For the next year or so, she says, she helped cook, clean and do the household chores for her boyfriend, his mother and stepfather and his 10 younger siblings.

Fourteen of them lived in three rooms of a four-room flat. "I was like a maid to them and had no money and no freedom," she says. "They would taunt me that my own family did not want me and I could be their slave."

Her boyfriend, a van driver and compulsive gambler, also began beating her. In the middle of 2011, they were kicked out of the flat because he owed his family money.

Between June 2011 and October the following year, they lived in his delivery van. Abusive and controlling, he made her accompany him everywhere.

She could have run away, but had nowhere to go, she says. "My family would say I brought all my problems upon myself by having the affair. So there was no point."

When she discovered she was pregnant with twins, she tried to rent a flat from the HDB, but was not eligible because she had sold a flat less than 30 months earlier. The HDB is known to make exceptions for divorced mothers, but she was not divorced yet.

The twins were born premature and she took them along when she went to see her boyfriend's MP, Dr Maliki Osman. She was referred to a shelter and to Pave.

Pave executive director Sudha Nair remembers the first time Ms Shidah came to see her, cradling an infant in each arm. "Both babies had very high fever and were throwing up. Our first task was to send them to hospital."

Social workers at Pave liaised with KK Women's and Children's Hospital. The twins needed a special kind of expensive milk, which the hospital gave free for a year.

Dr Nair also wrote to the HDB asking for a rental flat on compassionate grounds, as Ms Shidah did not meet the rental criteria. She moved into the Siglap IRH (interim rental housing) in April 2013, when her twins were less than a month old. "Having your own bathroom after so many years was a luxury," she says.

The social workers linked her with the Legal Aid Bureau for help with her divorce proceedings and the Social Service Office for aid. She was granted $900 per month, plus rental and utilities vouchers.

But she was not content to live on aid. Even as she tended to her babies, she quickly got to work, baking cookies to sell and ironing clothes for residents in neighbouring blocks. "My boyfriend had emptied my bank account and I wanted to make money quickly to buy another flat," she says.

Dr Nair is impressed with her courageous, can-do spirit. "She's suffered a lot, but never did she wallow in self-pity. It was always, 'How can I get out of this?' "

When the twins were six months old, Pave helped Ms Shidah find an infant care centre within walking distance. The full fees are around $800 per month but, because of her financial woes, she paid only $10 per child through higher ComCare subsidies which Pave applied for.

The Workforce Development Agency helped her get a job as an administrative assistant.

"To me, the biggest advantage of having Pave around was that they could deal with so many problems all at once so I could concentrate on my kids and work," she says.

Recently promoted and earning nearly $2,000 a month now, she is waiting for a four-room flat.

"The main reason I can get it is that I had enough CPF savings from having worked for 15 years during my previous marriage," she says. Although her former boyfriend used up all the money she had in the bank, he could not touch her CPF savings.

The future is uncertain. Her twins have a blood disorder and have been in hospital seven times since they were born. She worries about their healthcare costs.

But there is also plenty to look forward to. Her new flat is being built. She recently re-established contact with her two older children, who are Singaporeans, and hopes to bring them home.

She has also finally broken up with the abusive boyfriend who took her money and damaged her self-respect.

"But he could not take away my education and my determination," Ms Shidah says. "And that is what I need to rebuild my life."

From heartbreak to hopes of a new home
By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 30 Aug 2015

It's early on a weekday morning and Madam Noorliah Hawdi, 43, looks dressed for a party.

"Today is special," the factory worker says with a smile, her pink lipstick matching the large pink and white flowers emblazoned on her blouse. "I never thought we will own our home again."

Later that morning, Madam Noorliah, her husband Rosli Jadi, 44, and the youngest of their five children, Nur Syahidah, 11, head from their Siglap Interim Rental Housing (IRH) scheme flat to the Housing Board headquarters in Toa Payoh to sign the contract for their new apartment. The three-room unit in Yishun will be ready in 2017.

Ever since their five-room Yishun flat was taken away by the bank because of mounting arrears in 2009, the family of seven has had no permanent home. They moved six times in three years, staying with relatives, after putting their belongings in storage.

At one point, they stayed with 13 others in a three-room flat in Bedok, while their children continued attending school in Yishun. They tried renting a room with a cousin in Sengkang, but 17 people in a four-room flat did not work out.

When they were cash-strapped and unable to pay the $300 monthly fee for storage, all their belongings were forfeited. Losing the possessions of their past made her feel depressed about the future.

"At that time, I thought our financial situation would improve only when our kids started working," she says.

Tired of their nomadic existence, the couple appealed to the HDB for a rental flat and were referred to the Siglap IRH instead in September 2011. They now have two rooms in a four-room flat.

Their financial woes date back a decade. Mr Rosli was a construction safety supervisor but a knee operation in 2004 left him unable to work for a year. That happened just one year after they bought their five-room flat.

A bank gave them a loan even though Madam Noorliah worked part-time and they earned a combined income of only $2,000 a month. It was their third HDB flat. As the family grew, they had sold their smaller flats.

With Mr Rosli out of work, they lived off their savings and Madam Noorliah's pay of $700 a month as a factory worker. Soon they were falling behind on their monthly loan repayments.

Although Mr Rosli resumed work a year later, he earned around $1,600 a month. By 2009, they had fallen behind on mortgage payments to such an extent that the bank took away their flat.

At the IRH, social workers from Pave, a voluntary welfare organisation, helped them work through their financial woes and linked them with aid from the Social Service Office. The Workforce Development Agency (WDA) also helped them with training and, within a year, the couple secured full-time, better-paying jobs and their monthly family income increased to $3,300. They also began attending parenting workshops.

The HDB assessed the family's finances, including what the couple had in their CPF savings, and suggested that they buy a three-room flat which could be paid for through Mr Rosli's CPF savings.

"Getting Pave to talk to HDB about our problems really helped a lot," said Madam Noorliah. The once-quiet homemaker is a new woman now. She has taken up several courses through the WDA - the latest being a diploma in leadership - and is finally confident at work.

The biggest lesson she learnt, she says, is that hard work pays off. "I have better pay, I have my new diploma and will soon have my new flat," she says, beaming.

The couple recently set aside enough to celebrate their wedding anniversary for the first time.

These days, Madam Noorliah has become a regular volunteer at community-centre activities. "This community helped me," she says. "Now I want to give back."

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