“Perhaps you can consider staying at a hostel in Geylang,” he told her. “They charge $18 per night.”
It was the last thing a homeless, pregnant woman would expect to hear from a social worker: go put up in Singapore’s red light district. Words laced with cruelty. She ran out of his office, tears streaming down her face.
10 years since that dreadful day, Liyana Dhamirah cuts a different demeanour as we chatted in her 2-room rental flat in Lengkok Bahru. She is no longer the austere and depressed 22-year old a decade ago. Instead, we find a chirpy and excited lady, ever-ready to share her story of how serendipity has changed her life, and that of her 3 children.
“Things are better now,” she says with a smile, as she joins us on the floor after turning off her laptop. Their circumstances have improved but she has not forgotten how she had to pull herself, and her children, out of the quagmire they were sucked into.
A decade ago, she was part of a homeless community in Sembawang Park, nestled in the northern edge of Singapore. The park was an isolated, sparsely forested area near the sea, accessible only by Sembawang Road.
Its apparent tranquil surroundings, however, belied the harsh realities the 15 homeless families faced. They were locked out in the cold, literally, barred by public housing policies from getting a roof over their heads. Their only shield from the elements were the cheap tents they had bought. Public toilets were where they showered and washed.
“Throughout those months, I had been going to the Family Service Centres, the CDCs,” Liyana says, explaining her effort to seek help. “I had been to Meet-the-People sessions [of my MP] so many times.”
Her own HDB flat was repossessed by the authorities because they could not service the mortgage. A stint staying with her mother and her mother-in-law did not work out too well. The latter threw them out over some disagreements.
With nowhere else to go, and pregnant with her third child, they set up tent at the beach. It was nearing the end of the year, which meant inclement weather this part of the world, and the beginning of a new chapter of struggle for the family.
Often, the families were staying illegally in the park.
“If you overstay, the NParks officer, if they find out, they can just fine you, regardless what your situation may be,” Liyana says. Each person is allowed only a 7-day permit in a month for camping. Once that is exceeded, you are considered an illegal camper.
For Liyana and those like her, life was a cat-and-mouse game with the parks authorities. The families moved from one park to another, nomads in their own home, one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
One day, when word came that there would be a raid by the parks authority, they packed up and headed west, to join the other homeless folk at West Coast Park to evade inspection since their 7-day permit had expired.
“One of our friends had a big lorry and all of us loaded up on the lorry to go to West Coast,” Liyana says. “There were about 6 families, total of about 20 people, including children… Sunny volunteered to stay behind to be our look-out.”
Sunny was an Indian man in his 60s, a free spirit who loved the natural environment, and a self-appointed guardian of the homeless.
Their days at West Coast turned out to be miserable ones. They spent most of their time inside their tents, as the skies opened and poured frequently during the monsoon season. Even doing their laundry and preparing meals became a challenge.
“We used charcoal stove to cook meals, because gas stoves were more expensive,” Liyana recalls. “We couldn’t light our charcoal stoves because of the rain. There were also fewer pavillions at West Coast Park. So, we were normally in the open. Those were the worst days. By then I was already 6 months pregnant, and we had to live on canned food and bread.”
The wet weather meant cold days and nights, not pleasant conditions for kids. “[The children] would fall sick, with fever,” Liyana recalls.
The other homeless people who had been resident in West Coast were, as the Sembawang group, a mix of people from different backgrounds, but all in desperate situations. One of the most memorable was Rahim who, together with his wife and 18-year old son, had been at the park for 6 months when we met them.
Rahim also had colon cancer, requiring him to have an ostomy bag attached to the side of his abdomen. He could not ease himself normally as he had had parts of his colon removed. His wife helped him clean up when she returns from work each day.
After weeks of enduring the unforgiving wet conditions, Liyana reached her limits of tolerance. She resolved to seek help, and approached the former Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sport, (MCYS).
“2 of my friends and I took a bus to the MCYS office,” Liyana says. “It was my last hope.”
The MCYS building sat atop a hill, making her trip an uphill climb, literally.
They were led to the 11th floor where the MCYS office was.
“I was emotional and crying maybe because I was pregnant,” Liyana recalls that day in November. She filled out a stack of forms, handed them to the social worker, an apparently indifferent “Mr Tan” who, Liyana says, scrawled strange shapes on his pad while she poured out her heart to him.
“Then he handed me a tissue and said to me, ‘Look, I understand your situation. We also have other families who are like you who need homes as well. Perhaps you can consider staying at a hostel in Geylang. They charge $18 per night’.”
“When he said that, my heart shattered,” Liyana says, the memory still vivid in her mind. “I was devastated. I went all out to find help, not only for myself but for the other families as well. I went back to West Coast and slipped into a depression. I slept inside my tent for almost 2 weeks after that incident. I just slept cos I wanted to escape from the world.”
Time passed slowly as the rain refused to let up.
Then one morning, the rain stopped, and the sun came through the clouds. Temporary respite, and some good news, would come from an old friend they had not seen for 2 weeks.
“The group decided to do laundry because there was a huge pile of laundry which we had been unable to dry because of the rain,” Liyana says. “That was when I saw Sunny, from afar, he was limping because he had had a stroke,” Liyana says, remembering the late, selfless Indian man. “He came all the way just to tell us that the coast was clear in Sembawang Park.”
The group returned to the northern park during Hari Raya Haji so they could blend in with the festive crowd and would not to attract attention from the authorities, who had taken photos of the group earlier, to identify them during inspections.
It was about a month later when a group of do-gooders/activists visited the homeless to hand out groceries to them, to bring some Christmas spirit and New Year cheer.
The plight of the group (and other homeless people around all the major parks in Singapore) were reported online, and caught the attention of the authorities and prompted them to expedite the processes to provide these homeless people with shelter, particularly in rental flats.
The joy of the homeless, however, was short-lived.
Liyana’s family was given shelter in a 3-room rental flat, along with 2 other families which took the 2 available bedrooms, leaving Liyana and her family to sleep in the hall. “They gave us 4 thin mattresses, that was all. There were no curtains for privacy, nothing. It was totally opened.”
Being a woman and pregnant, with 2 small children in tow and one in her tummy, the living arrangement was awkward. So, they decided to pack their things and return to the park. At least in their own tent, they had privacy and dignity.
A few nights later, an uncommon sight in the park – a convoy of police cars with beacons flashing and a posse of officers from the MCYS and Nparks descended on the homeless, like vultures on fallen prey.
It was close to midnight.
“It was a raid on the homeless people at the park,” Liyana says. “I was screaming at the top of my voice. It was shocking to me.” The raiders went about the tents, shook them to wake up the occupiers, scolded the homeless campers, issued warnings and fines, and confiscated the tent and properties of those who were not present.
“At that point I was angry, really really angry,” Liyana says. “I was going around shouting, like a crazy pregnant woman. It was like a drug raid.”
The homeless were cleared out of the park, and moved to Angsana Home in Buangkok, in the premises of the Institute of Mental Health. They were housed in the same building as the mentally unstable and were prevented from leaving, even for work. On the first day, some of them were served just several pieces of roti prata as meal.
Conditions were intolerable, and in the next weeks they fought with the authorities to put them up in proper rental flats. Eventually, the families were moved to rental flats in block 29 at Havelock Road in a precinct of old public flats.
It was during her stay here that things finally began to change for the better, in an unexpected way.
Liyana recalls that one day, she had to buy milk powder for her daughter and she went to the teller machine, only to discover that she had only $5.35 left. Her husband at this point was in jail for theft, and she was left to fend for herself. She was not working as she had 3 children now to care for.
“It was 2 weeks to my next installment of financial assistance,” she says.
While walking home with her young children, desperate about where their next meal was going to come from, she came across a discarded bag which contained what she called ‘raw materials’ for handicraft – needles, sewing threads, beads, and such.
“I thought to myself that if these were really discarded stuff, I could take them,” she says. “So I did. I turned them into crochet with the help of the other families. They taught me and we turned them into wearable art work. I opened a makeshift stall at a stone bench at the block where we lived, selling these trinkets. I sold them to the foreign students who lived at the block as well. They were my first customers.”
That was how she survived the next few days until the financial assistance came. One of the foreign students who bought trinkets from her suggested she sold them online.
“I took $100 and bought a cheap laptop, so I could start a website to sell my things,” she says. “When I got the laptop and the Internet access, it opened up a new door for me.”
She stayed up all night to learn things like creating websites, doing graphics, and marketing, from free online courses. At the same time, she continued to sell her handcrafted trinkets at events, and flea markets on weekends.
But lugging her products to various locations and to sell her items at such events were not viable, as the transportation costs would outweigh the profits. So, she started to look for other opportunities – and her new knowledge from the online courses she had taken proved crucial, and helpful.
“It was through helping a friend that I realised there were businesses which needed administrative support,” Liyana says. “So when I saw that there was demand for such services, I started Virtual Assistants Singapore.”
Initially, the projects did not bring in much income and she was skeptical if it ever would.
“Although it was little, per project is like $200, to do data entry, or to clean up a website,” she says. “That’s how we got started.”
She recruited 3 others to join her little start-up.
Her clients would engage her on a project-by-project basis initially. But as she gained more experience and confidence with the work, she was able to negotiate better, longer term contracts with her clients. Now, the contracts are for 3 to 6 months, which give her more income stability.
“So far, I’ve got 3 companies which I’ve been assisting for more than a year already,” she says. “I work 5 hours a day for the 3 companies, which allows me to be around for my children.”
Things have indeed been looking up for her and even her children, who are now aged 15, 13 and 8. Her two elder kids, both boys, have been doing her proud in school.
“My eldest son gets bursaries and scholarships,” Liyana says. “So, every year we receive $750 in total from MOE because of their performance.” Her younger boy wants to go into sports science and intends to be a physical trainer.
But perhaps the sign that her life has indeed changed for the better is when she moves into her new 4-room HDB flat in October this year which she and her second husband have purchased from the open market.
Liyana says her children are excited about the move, besides having their own rooms, they would no longer need to sit on the floor, because she has purchased a new sofa set. These “little things”, as Liyana describes them, are what most people take for granted.
The business has done well enough to bring food to the table for her family, and for her to do up the new home a little. All these improvements have given her the courage and confidence to reach even higher. And now, she wants to pay-it-forward.
“My vision for VA is to help other single parents, or career-switching mothers, to be able to still have time to take care of the family, but at the same time to bring in some income for their households as well,” she says. “Because that was the struggle that I had back then, and I was looking for avenues to juggle the two, to raise my kids and to bring in some income so that we can put food on the table.”
The homeless-turned-entrepreneur mother is currently also pursuing a 21/2 years diploma in Business Management in Singapore Polytechnic.
“I would have to sacrifice 3 or 4 week nights to attend class,” Liyana says. It is indeed a far cry from the days of depression, living as an itinerant, having to depend on the mercy of others for a little handout.
The unkind words of Mr Tan may be seared into her memory and had seemingly beaten her down 10 years ago, but now Liyana wants to offer kinder words to those who are struggling, like she once did.
She is in the midst of discussion to have her book, “Once Homeless – “The Journey of Liyana Dhamirah”, published.
Living through those difficult moments have put things in perspective for Liyana, who regularly posts encouraging words in her short videos on her Facebook page.
A wife and mother of three, a self-taught entrepreneur, boss of a start-up, chairwoman of the parents support group in her son’s school, volunteer at charitable organisations and now author, Liyana’s story may not be one of rags-to-riches, but it certainly is one of grit and courage.
And her advice to those struggling is one of facing reality, and to deal with this in a pragmatic way.
“I would tell them to be resourceful,” she says. “When we are troubled, we tend to worry over things which we can’t control, instead of focusing on the things which we can control. You must take yourself out of that situation and see the things which you can control. And find the resources to support you.”