Cradling her 18-month-old daughter Kai in her arms, Suraya, 37, wears a wide smile as she welcomes us into her flat.

The 15th floor flat is small and sparsely-furnished but bright and welcoming. The dining table is laden with food; there is laksa made by Suraya’s 69-year-old mother, a big jug of syrup drink prepared by Suraya’s sister Marisa, and jars of Hari Raya cookies.

As she ushers us in, Suraya admits that she still finds it hard to believe that this is her home. She does not take the roof over her head for granted as she has been homeless.

“We are truly grateful to Sara,” says the 37-year-old single mother, her eyes welling up with tears as she reaches out to Sara Sukor, one of the co-founders of The Mak Minah Project, a social enterprise, which offered Suraya and her family a microloan to put down the deposit for the flat’s rental. The loan also went towards furnishing their home.

Their flat is more than just a shelter for this family; it’s also a way to get their lives back on course.

Just over a year ago, Suraya and her family were among the city’s homeless, seeking refuge at Anjung Singgah, a temporary shelter for the homeless and displaced.

Kai was just over a month old when Suraya and her family found themselves on the street with barely any money and nowhere to go, the culmination of a series of misfortunes.

“Our lives seemed to be spiralling out of control at the time. Nothing was working out for us. We were cheated by friends left, right and centre,” recalls Suraya.

“I don’t know how we ended up homeless. No, no… it was my fault. It was because of a man.”

Suraya was five months pregnant when her partner left her high and dry. They were planning to get married but he kept postponing the wedding date. He had told her to stop working, assuring her that he would cover their expenses. And then he disappeared.

“I had just RM500 in my hands when he left. Our rent and utilities were not paid and soon after, our car was repossessed,” she says, tears giving way to anger.

Things got worse fast. Marisa was retrenched from her job as a car-park attendant and had a tough time getting another job. She was finally hired as a sales assistant at a shoe shop. But one day Suraya had to be admitted for an emergency caesarian, and Marisa skipped work to look after her. She lost her job.

Since they moved into their new home, life has settled into a comfortable routine. Marisa has a stable job and Suraya’s mother is content feeding her family.

By then, their funds were depleted and they had no one to turn to. They couldn’t pay their rent and ended up at Anjung Singgah, where they heard about a soup kitchen that was giving out diapers to homeless mothers.

“That’s when we met Sara. After hearing our story, she immediately offered us help and within two weeks, she’d found us a home,” says Suraya

Home is where life begins

The Mak Minah project isn’t a charity.

It offers loans as seed money for homeless families to find a home and get off the streets.

The loans are interest-free and families are only expected to start repayment after three months, giving them enough time to look for employment and settle into their new lives.

“The loans are mainly to set the families up in a home. Most landlords require a few months’ deposit, which the homeless don’t have. The money also helps them move into their new homes and get by while they look for work. The amount depends on the individual needs of each family but they are basically just enough to get them on their feet again,” explains Sara.

The Mak Minah Project was conceived in 2014. Sara and her friend Ayu Abdullah volunteered at a soup kitchen and their engagement with the homeless community exposed them to the myriad of issues faced by the urban poor.

“When we got to know the homeless, we found that one of their biggest issues was not having enough money for a rental deposit. It’s not easy finding affordable housing in KL and it is worse if you are homeless and have no money.

“After listening to their stories, we felt we had to do something,” says Ayu, an engineer with Enact, a not-for-profit energy and community development organisation.

Funding decent homes

The two friends decided to crowdsource funds for their initiative, which they call the Mak Minah Project. The team is made up of Sara, Ayu, and two part-time staff Maisyarah Mazlan and Alishia Zulkifli.

Suraya still finds it hard to believe she has a place to call home. Photos: The Star/Ricky Lai

Within months, they managed to collect enough funds from family and friends to re-home their first family. As more people found out about their initiative, their funds grew and to date, four families have benefitted from their loans.

“Suraya and her family were our second family and we are extremely proud of them. We gave them a loan of RM3,500 and they have been repaying us, without fail, for the past one-and-a-half years. By next year, they would have finished their repayments,” says Sara, a full-time mother who was formerly with the Worldwide Fund For Nature.

Through their network of friends and contacts, Sara and Ayu found affordable but decent homes for their clients.

“We are particular about where we home them. We want them to move into a neighbourhood that is conducive for them to raise their families. We don’t want them to move from one dump area to another. In the end, it’s all about the children. We want their children to grow up in a good environment and to be part of a community that is healthy and wholesome,” says Sara.

One of the conditions of the Mak Minah loans is that the families must send their children to school regularly.

“This is really important. We are in the midst of restructuring our programme and we want to introduce an incentive savings scheme for their children to keep them in school. We are still working this out,” says Sara.

Continuing support

On top of the loans, the project also offers families support services which include counselling, skills training and financial planning.

“We partner up with organisations or people who can offer these services and are always on the lookout for people we can work with. While we don’t find them jobs, we help them with their applications and prepare them for work as much as we can,” says Ayu.

Tenancy agreements are strictly between the families and their landlords. Mak Minah stands in as a guarantor for the families, if necessary. The team also checks in on their beneficiaries as they try to get back on their feet.

“Some families need more monitoring. We don’t need to check on Suraya and her family any more as they have adjusted well. Marisa has a job in a hotel and is up for a promotion. Suraya isn’t working yet but both sisters are good seamstresses and that can be another source of income for them too,” says Sara.

However, other families need more supervision.

“Our third and fourth families need a little more support and we are still helping them get on their feet. Firstly, they relocated to Lukut (in Negri Sembilan) because they found jobs there. We tried a new housing model with them – both families share a three-bedroom house. They have their own rooms but share the living room and kitchen.

“We hope that they will be able to support each other as a community. If one family falls on tough times, they can rely on the other family for support. But they are still working things out and need our support,” says Ayu.

A chance to start over

When they started The Mak Minah Project three years ago, Sara and Ayu chose the recipients of their loans based on their own assessments.

“We interviewed the families and identified those which we thought had the most potential to change and move themselves up. But we didn’t realise the complex issues that these families have.

“The first family we housed stopped repaying their loan after three months. We realised that they were probably not ready for such a move or needed more support.

“We then realised that there are two types of people we are dealing with – families like Suraya who have been self sufficient but ended up on the streets due to unfortunate circumstances and families who have become accustomed to receiving handouts and are not ready to take responsibility for their own lives. These families need a lot more support which we initially were not prepared for. It’s definitely been a learning curve for us,” says Sara. Mak Minah now works with Anjung Singgah to help them identify the recipients for their loans.

Their contact person is Amir Rudin Abdul Rahman, the operations manager of a shelter for the homeless, Pusat Transit Gelandangan Kuala Lumpur.

Amir was managing Anjung Singgah when Suraya turned up at the doorstep of the refuge.

Although Anjung Singgah caters mainly to individuals, the social worker housed Suraya and her family. “I didn’t want to separate the family. In cases like this, the Welfare Department would take temporary custody of the child until the parent has a job and finds a stable home,” he said.

There are more of the homeless who need the financial aid that the Mak Minah Project offers, but Sara and her colleagues only have limited resources.

As the initiative is still in its infancy, their aim now is to help four families find homes in a year. They are, however, on the look out for grants that will enable them to develop their initiative further. They are also in search of partners to strengthen the support services they offer clients.

“When we started out, we had the ambitious plan of re-homing eight families a year. But the task is more challenging than we anticipated as we are a small team doing this on a part-time basis. Hopefully, we can get more people onboard who can partner with us,” says Ayu.

The problems related to urban poverty, she feels, can only be resolved with society’s support; the government and NGOs cannot work alone.

“We first need to create awareness among the public that urban poverty is real and something we all need to address. So far, we have received a lot or support but it would be nice to see more people involved – not necessarily in our project. We also need to convince the homeless families that we help that they have to give back to society too. It’s a two-way process,” says Ayu.

Amir agrees with Ayu, but his expectations are a little more contained.

“The most important thing the public needs to do is to withhold judgement about the displaced and homeless. Many brush them off as being useless or a menace to society. You don’t know their circumstances.

“Everyone deserves a second chance and as long as they are able and healthy, they can rebuild themselves. If you can support them … even if it’s just one person, that’s already a good thing. If you can’t, then just don’t judge them,” says Amir who has been working with the displaced for almost 20 years.