Thursday 28 April 2016

Couple who lived on lorry move into rental flat

HDB allows them to rent entire two-room flat; they will buy own flat after son's birth
By Yeo Sam Jo, The Straits Times, 26 Apr 2016

After nearly two years of living in a lorry, rice delivery man Ong Poh Hwa and his Vietnamese wife finally have a roof over their heads.

Last Thursday, the couple, who are expecting their first child in August, moved into a two-room flat in Bedok North under the Housing Board's Interim Rental Housing Scheme.

"We were really happy when we got the keys," Mr Ong, 44, told The Straits Times in Mandarin.

"The size of the flat does not matter. It's better than living outside - at least we have a proper shelter from bad weather."

Mr Ong and his wife, 34-year-old Nguyen Thi Phu Vinh, had spent the past two years living in the lorry Mr Ong uses for work. They would park at night at Changi Beach, where they did their laundry and showered in public toilets.

The couple, who had met when Mr Ong worked in Vietnam for a rice exporter from 2009 to 2013, would also sleep on cardboard in the back of their open vehicle.

They had previously rented a room in MacPherson for $650 a month, but found it too costly for Mr Ong's monthly take-home salary of $1,520. Mr Ong's wife cannot work here as she is on a social visit pass. They are also not eligible for a public rental flat or a new subsidised flat.

After their plight was shared by the media last month, social workers and the HDB stepped in to help.

Mr Ong was offered the option of sharing a three-room interim rental unit with another family, but he declined this as it would have been inconvenient with his newborn son.

The HDB then made an exception and offered the family an entire temporary rental flat for one year. This was because Mr Ong had committed to buying a home after his son's birth, which would make the family eligible for a Build-To-Order flat.

Excluding utilities, the couple have to pay a $400 monthly rent.

When The Straits Times visited them yesterday, the flat was mostly sparse, save for some furniture donated by friends and reporters.

The couple had also bought second-hand appliances such as a rice cooker, a television set and a washing machine at discounted prices.

It was a tender scene as the two bantered with each other in Vietnamese, with Mr Ong occasionally caressing his wife's belly. The couple had just returned from a regular prenatal checkup, which costs them more than $400 each time.

Mr Ong, who has no cash savings, said he hopes to use his Medisave to offset his wife's birth delivery costs, estimated at $6,200. But this is currently not allowed. As a foreigner, Ms Vinh is also not eligible for cheaper wards.

But the couple insist on not accepting any monetary donations.

While Mr Ong's boss had already lent them $1,000 to help with their expenses, they declined his further offers to cover Ms Vinh's medical fees. Said Mr Ong: "We appreciate the thought. But there will still be expenses like milk powder after the baby is born. We can't keep taking money from others."

Squatting in the kitchen slicing papayas and preparing an omelette for dinner over a portable stove, Ms Vinh said she now spends her days going to the market and doing household chores. It is a simple life, but she is more than content.

"I feel much safer now. It was very tough cooking and washing clothes while living by the sea, especially when it rained," she said in a mix of Vietnamese and Mandarin. "All I want is for my baby to be healthy. Then I will apply to be a permanent resident and slowly find work, maybe as a waitress."

The couple plan to name their son Jia Kang, which means "healthy home" or "healthy family" in Chinese. Mr Ong said: "We want to buy a three-room flat, so he can have his own room.

"But for now, this is more than enough for both of us," he added, his face breaking into a smile.

Offers of help as they move from lorry to flat
By Yeo Sam Jo, The Straits Times, 28 Apr 2016

More than 100 people have offered to help a couple whose home used to be a lorry because they could not afford to rent a flat.

Rice delivery man Ong Poh Hwa, 44, told The Straits Times last month how he and his 34-year-old pregnant wife, Ms Nguyen Thi Phu Vinh, slept on cardboard sheets and washed in public toilets at a Changi Beach car park.

Although the Housing Board helped the couple to move into a temporary two-room rental flat in Bedok North last week, readers have written in offering to donate items such as beds and sofas as well as fridges and microwave ovens.

There were also offers of baby items such as cots, clothes, nappies, milk powder and toys.

However, the couple have refused monetary donations.

Part-time real estate agent Molly Thong, 55, who offered her barely-used sofa bed, said: "I really respect the couple. It's touching that they want to build a new life with their own efforts.

"I saw from the picture that they sleep on only mattresses (in the flat), so this is the least I can do."

Mr Ong met his wife in Vietnam while working there for a rice exporter from 2009 to 2013.

They registered their marriage in June last year and she applied for a long-term visit pass in November.

Last month, it was reported that the homeless couple had spent two years in Mr Ong's work lorry and are expecting their first child in August.

Some donors have offered to deliver the items themselves, while others wrote in simply to ask if they could help in any way.

Retired doctor David Tay, 66, is offering a dining table and chairs, a bed and a baby cot. He said: "Hopefully these can lighten their financial burden when the baby comes along."

Mr Ong said he was moved by the offers: "Singaporeans have a warm heart. These are strangers but they still want to help us."

While the couple cannot accept all the donations because their flat is small, Mr Ong said: "I can only accept what we need, like a fridge and a bed. But I appreciate all the kind thoughts."

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