Homelessness has been a long-standing problem within our very own city of KL. The homeless are often victims of fraud, bankruptcy, violence, or runaways from broken families that simply have nowhere else to go.
They are often ostracised from society because of the many negative perceptions surrounding them—that they’re useless, that they’re unclean, that they’re mentally ill or that they somehow “deserve” what they’re going through.
In 2011, Gary Liew started up Street Feeders of KL, a grassroots movement whose mission is to break these social stigmas and re-integrate the homeless back into society through counselling, street feedings, or simply sitting down and lending a willing ear to listen.
Gary first started working with the homeless by helping his mom run a soup kitchen in Bukit Nanas that served lunch to 100 to 200 homeless daily.
While assisting her in the kitchen, he would befriend the homeless people waiting outside for their meal. He realised he never noticed where his street friends slept at night, or who tended to their needs outside of the soup kitchen.
At that point, he knew something needed to be done, but didn’t know how.
“Given my age I didn’t want to just join existing groups out there so I figured why not start my own? And so I did. With a handful of friends I took to the streets every month with the simple mind-set of being a friend to someone on the streets who could use one.”
The 29-year-old believes that being there for someone takes a lot of heart and is something that anyone can do if they sincerely wanted to.
Their vision is to reach out and build relationships with the homeless that could help them reintegrate back into society.
They manage this by arranging events from nightly feedings to open houses where they invite the homeless and volunteers alike to participate in a night of fun and bonding.
For the Open House events, volunteers purchase tickets to join invited street friends and sit at the same table to share a meal.
“It is a safe space to share and do even more than we could on the streets. For a few hours our street friends will enjoy a very personal one-on-one company with our volunteers and our team.”
“Our food will be catered from a social enterprise who empowers and works towards providing sustainable income to underprivileged families. This way we support and help even more communities out there doing such great work.”
They also arrange community events for the homeless, such as the Free Night Market where anyone can get free supplies for their daily needs such as medical care, barber services, and job offers.
The payment for the services are settled with a simple “please” and “thank you”.
They also listen to homeless’ needs to ease their lives on the streets. Just last year, they set up a mobile shower on the streets on alternate weeks to their feedings, and even brought everyone out for a movie just to forget their worries for the night.
Initially self-funded, Street Feeders now gain income through the sales of their volunteer t-shirts. However, that amount is not enough to last even a few months and therefore no one on the team takes any salary as all the funds go towards their street projects for the homeless community.
“The internal team is small, about several of us. They are all volunteering their time despite keeping their day jobs just like me. It started by word of mouth and now social media is really how we get the word out.”
Currently they are moving on from street feedings to establishing a trusting relationship between the homeless and volunteers. Gary believes that providing food is merely the first way to reach out, and the bond-building that comes after is what makes it important.
“In fact, most of the time my volunteers simply sit beside their street friend, talking, listening to their stories, taking in their hope and dreams. This bond builds on a relationship that they can do more with once the trust has been established.”
These days, their focus is on a project aptly named “Jalan-Jalan Cari Kawan”.
“It’s our fortnightly street mission where the aim is to take to the streets with a bottle of water volunteers can buy through the pay-it-forward through the Viva Starfish Project.”
Viva Starfish Project is a social business that provides jobs and shelter for the homeless, ex-prisoners and former drug addicts and graduates from rehab centres in order to give them a second chance at life. The profits of each bottle goes towards the education of underprivileged children as well.
Their mission in this undertaking is to build on the existing relationships they already have with the use of Info Help Cards, which lists all the resources and contacts their street friends can use (e.g. where to get Medical Assistance, Shelter, Designated Feeding locations, Counselling, Welfare Aid).
“This way we work with existing groups who are already experts in their areas to communicate to our street friends on how they can help themselves in whichever area they need help in, ultimately supporting the larger community by doing our small part in it through reaching out in our own areas.”
Having a firm belief for change, Gary believes that the first step to preventing homelessness starts at home.
“I strongly advocate for my volunteers to always go back and be their own heroes to the people around them first even before going out and ‘changing the world’, as it starts at home.”
“The problems we see our street friends face and what has led them to end up on the streets have a universal thread that is called family.”
“Whether they come from a broken family or there was no love or communication, or a falling out, there are some that are working hard and sleeping on the streets only to be able to send some money back to support a family who doesn’t even know their loved one is homeless in the capital.”
Gary’s work is not limited to Malaysia alone, as he alternates within 8 cities to another to spread awareness on his work. Having just returned from Malacca, he will be covering KL and Seremban this weekend, then moving on to India in December.
In 2016 out of 23 street feedings and one Free Night Market, Street Feeders of KL had 7254 volunteers, and fed and empowered 11,100 homeless people.
However, society as a whole has a long way to go before the issue of homelessness can be fully addressed.
“People always say they want to help but the stigmatisation will always exist.”
One of team’s current challenges is to convince volunteers to sit and the same table and share food with the street friends.
“I’ve heard from some, that how they will just return to the streets to hand out food but will never sit and share a meal simply because it is not for them.”
“They still want to help, but only on their terms and what suits them.”
He told us the story of another friend, who thought he could never relate to the homeless community. Gary invited him to join the street feeding, and he went along.
“He bumped into another friend of his which he had lost touch with over the years and was surprised that he was also volunteering. But the real twist was when that friend said he wasn’t volunteering but was actually one of the homeless instead.”
Gary believes that volunteering is important, but creating awareness by talking about it matters too.
“These homeless are still our countrymen, they are our people after all and we owe it to ourselves to do something about it.”
Feature Image Credit: Street Feeders of KL