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'Airbnb For The Needy': This S'pore Initiative Opens Up Homes At Zero Rent For Up To A Year

Kampungs, or villages, have long ceased to be the primary type of accommodation in Singapore.

A ‘kampung’ is a Malay term for a traditional village — a clustered community with a population of a few hundreds. Today, this is similar to a Housing Development Board (HDB) estate, where most Singaporeans reside.

The highly-celebrated ‘kampung spirit’, which boasts of camaraderie and community concern has also made way for a preference of privacy over connecting with neighbours.

This phenomenon was something that 31-year-old Kenneth Heng and his wife wanted to avoid when they moved into their new home, which led to the birth of the Open Home Network (OHN).

The Open Home Network

OHN is an initiative which encourages and supports Singaporeans to open their homes and provide a refuge for high-risk individuals.

You can think about it simply as an ‘Airbnb for the needy’, where host families who are willing to house those in dire straits can rent it to them for free for up to one year.

The initiative was started by Kenneth, who is also the founder of social enterprise Solve n+1, along with Abraham Yeo, co-founder of Homeless Hearts of Singapore, a charity which helps the homeless.

“Stumbling” Into Social Entrepreneurship

A solve n+1 project, starting the open home network
A Solve n+1 project / Image Credit: Solve n+1 via Facebook

While working full-time for a charity, Kenneth started becoming intrigued by the idea of a “ethical, holistic business” that could create opportunities for the vulnerable as well.

For many years, he travelled into various communities and villages to spend time to learn about the issues they faced.

After building friendships with locals from different communities, he started working on mini-projects with them — from micro-lending to a small chicken farm.

His social enterprise, Solve n+1, was gradually born as a result of his engagement with friends to facilitate micro-initiatives for community development.

The social enterprise facilitates social innovation for community development among the vulnerable. This is done through consultations, research and project management, resulting in collaborative projects that builds resilience in vulnerable communities.

Opening Up Their Hearts And Home

OHN is part of the Bezer Initiative, one of the projects by Solve n+1.

Kenneth Heng from Open Home Network and Solve n+1
Kenneth Heng, Co-founder of the Open Home Network and Solve n+1 / Image Credit: Solve n+1 via Facebook

It all began when Kenneth and his wife discussed about what kind of culture they wanted to create when they moved into a new neighbourhood.

We knew that we would love it if our neighbours knew each other and supported one another whether in times of need or not, so we took time to connect with them — from saying hello to having conversations at the corridor.

Kenneth Heng, co-founder of the Open Home Network

Over time, the couple temporarily took in folks in need, from a youth who was estranged from his family, to a Pakistani family who travelled to Singapore for their son’s cancer treatment.

According to Kenneth, even their neighbours and friends supported their actions.

“It was then we realised how valuable the involvement of the community is for a person in crisis,” said Kenneth in an interview with Vulcan Post.

The English and Sociology graduate also began writing about how the community could be included to support people in crisis, and designing ways to do so.

The opportunity to officially begin the initiative came when Homeless Hearts of Singapore made a call for hosts, and the project was launched in June this year.

Gaining Traction Even Amidst Covid-19

open home network singapore
Image Credit: Open Home Network via Facebook

When Homeless Hearts made an open call for families, 160 families signed up as hosts.

This shows us that people have the potential to be kind, we just need to unlock these expressions in order to give each other the permission to connect and support.

Kenneth Heng, co-founder of the Open Home Network

The network takes referrals from social service agencies and non-governmental organisations, and there have been about 30 referrals in the past nine weeks.

Before arrangements are made for the person-in-crisis to move in, a meeting which resembles a facilitated dating process will be arranged.

The meeting focuses on ensuring both parties learn more about each other and build a steady relationship at the start before a move-in is finalised.

Despite the high number of signups at the start, Kenneth mentioned that through the preparation process, many hosts realised they were not “ready” to begin hosting, and the attrition rate begin to grow.

Currently, the network has about 10 families, but the number of new signups continues to grow.

Hosting strangers in one’s home might seem unintuitive and cumbersome, but Kenneth said that the host families “understand that a stable environment is essential in enabling a person to navigate his/her crisis”.

Championing Social Good

It did not take long for Kenneth and Abraham to realise that they started a project that addresses a pain point that social workers encounter quite regularly, more so during the Covid-19 outbreak.

The OHN is a welcome initiative for estranged individuals amid a rise in domestic violence since the circuit breaker measures in Singapore kicked in to curb the spread of the virus.

Kenneth noted that the work of OHN does not replace the professional support of social workers or volunteer organisations, but complements them.

Post-Covid-19, the duo hope to develop more research literature, advocacy, and partnerships so that more families “understand the value of hospitality and supporting one another”.

Despite that, Kenneth understands that Singaporeans “generally prefer their own privacy to hosting” and it will take more “time and education” before the OHN can be fully operational in the long-term.

Covid-19 has created many opportunities for Singaporeans to think about important issues.

Kenneth has observed that more Singaporeans are speaking up about matters like “climate change, migrant workers dormitories, and poverty.”

He sees this as a massive opportunity for his team to continue to champion more collaboration for social good, be it through OHN or Solve n+1.

“I’m grateful to see more Singaporeans rise up during this crisis to volunteer resources and time. I hope that this will be part of the new normal that will remain post-COVID-19,” said Kenneth.

Featured Image Credit: Solve n+1 via Facebook and Homeguide

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