Fariq Somasundram looks forward to Thursdays. By 7am, he’d be in a long queue outside a transit centre for the homeless in Kuala Lumpur, eager to grab some work. His task could be to stick labels on packages or make beaded jewellery.
The 30-year-old mechanical engineering diploma holder does not mind how menial or mundane the tasks assigned to him are. Working at the Pusat Khidmat Gelandangan and collecting his pay packet at the end of the day remind him of his life before he became homeless a year ago.
Fariq used to work as an engineering technician in Malacca. But he fell into bad company and lost his job and family. He moved to Kuala Lumpur to start anew but found himself down and out on the streets.
“After a week in KL, all my belongings were stolen including my certificates. I only had a little money. I didn’t want to bother my family so I got a job as a security guard but was not paid for three months,” shares Fariq, who now earns RM20 a day washing dishes in a restaurant.
It was one incident after another. Just as Fariq was losing hope, he got involved with something that has made him more determined to get back on his feet.
Fariq is one of 50 or so homeless people who have found part-time employment with Inclue, a fledgling social enterprise that creates job opportunities for people living on the streets to empower them to get back on their feet. Inclue partners with businesses willing to outsource jobs to the homeless community.
Their workspace is at the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) transit centre for the homeless where Inclue pays them an hourly wage of RM6, provides them with lunch and monitors their job performance. Inclue also offers the homeless workers medical and other support services.
In the long term, Inclue hopes the workshop sessions will prepare the workers for permanent employment which will in turn help them get off the streets.
This, however, will take time. Inclue has to be sure the workers are ready to commit to a full-time job.
“We have to be confident that they are ready before we recommend them to companies. For this, we need to observe them at the workshop sessions. We need to see if they come regularly, determine their skill sets and only then make a match,” said Anthony David, programmes director for Impact Hub KL, an incubation hub that fosters social enterprises such as Inclue.
Inclue was David’s brainchild. He had spent some time with the homeless in KL several years ago to understand the community’s issues and why people live on the streets.
“This group of people are largely stigmatised. Most of us think they are untrustworthy and lazy but this is far from the truth.
“They end up on the streets for many reasons. Some come to the city looking for work or to make it big but fall into bad company, get cheated or just run out of luck. On the streets, they are vulnerable and face many challenges.
“Hunger, however, isn’t one of them as there are many feeding programmes for the homeless. If anything, they have too much food and there is a lot of wastage. I’m not against feeding programmes … people want to help, which is a good thing. But we need to empower the homeless. We need to give them jobs so they can feed themselves too,” says David.
It was this idea that gave birth to Inclue, an initiative under the Finance Ministry’s 2016 Volunteering for International Professionals (VIP) programme. VIP is a fellowship which brings young professionals from around the world to Malaysia to develop programmes to address the country’s pressing social concerns. Inclue started in March with a RM10,000 seed fund from the ministry
Inclue’s immediate focus is securing jobs for the homeless so that they can have regular work and earn a decent wage.
“At the moment, we only have enough work to run the workshop session once a week and for only about 15 persons. Ideally, we want to run the workshops maybe three or four times a week. There would be more regular work and we would be able to assess their skill sets and determine if they would be suitable for long-term employment,” explains Dr Sharminithevi Paramalingam, 36, a general surgeon and medical lecturer who was formerly with the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre.
So far, six companies have signed on to the programme and the founders are looking for more partners.
One of their partners is Viva Starfish, a social enterprise that sells bottled water. Run by husband and wife team Jerryson Abraham Doss and Edna Sung, Viva Starfish has a policy of hiring people from vulnerable groups such as recovering addicts and the homeless. They have offered five permanent jobs to Inclue’s workers but only one position has been filled.
Inclue needs more time to determine the capacity of their workers for full-time work.
“We cannot just throw them into a full–time working environment and expect them to adapt. Some have underlying challenges and problems which they need to deal with. For example, after being on the streets for so long, they may feel intimidated, restricted or scared in a foreign environment. They are away from their comfort zones and the conditions on the streets are just so different.
“The workshop sessions can help build their confidence and prepare them for work. It is a good way to screen these workers for their potential to work full time. If they are consistent and serious about work, this can be their testimonial to future employers,” says Jerryson, 39, an accountant.
Dr Sharmini is one of the six VIP fellows to develop Inclue and get it off the ground. The other five are Awaludin Jalalus Shuti from Malaysia, Louis Bracamontes from Mexico, Csaba Attila Dudas from Hungary, Reisy Abramof from Brazil and Benjamin Langekaer from Denmark.
Teaching a man to fish
Inclue started its initiative in late March and the response has been positive.
“In the beginning, we went out to the streets at night to talk to the homeless about the workshop sessions but they were wary. They didn’t know who we were and were not sure if we would stick around or were just there for a short while. On the first day, four persons showed up for work. The four returned the following week with six more friends. These workers became our ambassadors and told their friends about the jobs and the numbers grew,” says Bracamontes.
So far, some 51 street dwellers have worked with Inclue. Of the total, 26 returned more than once. About 10 have become regular workers.
Inclue’s experience so far has disproved allegations that the homeless do not want to work.
“The workshop sessions start at 10am. But by the second and third week, people would be lining up outside the centre from as early as 7am. They knew that the jobs were limited and so they wanted to be there early to make sure they could get work. This showed us they were motivated. Though not all come back every week, they were willing to work for their money,” observes Dr Sharminithevi.
For the homeless, Inclue’s workshop is also a refuge from the threats of the streets. Here, they can work with dignity and relax with their co-workers.
“I’ve been coming here for a few months and the group here is like my family. I feel safe and I get to work alongside my friends. I hope to find a job at a factory where I can use my skills and leave the streets,” says Fariq, his voice breaking with emotion.
Inclue’s task is also to prepare the homeless, psychologically and emotionally, to get back into society.
“The warehouse has provided them with a safe space to socialise while doing something productive in a dignified way. This is one way of easing them back into society,” says Langekaer.
Mohd Ameerdeen is a regular Inclue worker.
He is in his 50s and has been living on the streets for about five years after a dispute with his siblings. He appears to be the group’s unofficial leader, cajoling the others to open up about the kind of work they are interested in doing.
“If there is work, they will come. To be frank, some of them are not interested in long-term employment. They are happy with day jobs; they only want enough to buy their daily necessities. But there are many who want regular jobs,” says Ameerdeen, who is from Selangor and has been in and out of prison for drug use.
The workshop sessions, he says, have given them a sense of purpose.
“Now we know that every Thursday, there is work for us. So we get up, have a shower, brush our teeth and make it to the warehouse early. Otherwise, every day is like the next,” he says.
David says the homeless appreciate the chance to be self-reliant.
“Whether it is to buy Panadol or a mat to sleep on or mosquito coils to be able to sleep through the night, they need money to survive. And even if it’s just to buy something they like to eat.
“After a session at the workshop, a group of the workers were sitting around and discussing where to eat. Although there are feeding programmes for them, it’s nice that they can afford to buy food they actually crave or feel like eating.”