People across Singapore are gearing up towards celebrating Chinese New Year, the year of the Dragon. Yesterday my local supermarket was rammed with people buying up produce like it was the end of the world. And people are busy bestowing red packets, oranges and cookies to friends and loved ones, wishing that they will have a prosperous year ahead.
But there is definitely at least one person who I am almost certain will not be having a prosperous year this year.
Who is he?
Let me tell you. The other day I went to meet a good friend for coffee, she was talking to a gentleman who I vaguely recognized as someone that worked at her condo.
Except the one major thing I was missing is that he didn't work at her condo anymore, and indeed she hadn't seen him there for a good few months.
It turns out that his wife had passed away and he had not been able to cope - he had turned to drinking, lost his job, been unable to make the payments for his HDB apartment and now he was sleeping on the streets. With only two changes of clothes to call his own he was struggling to understand how he would be able to get a job with no home address and no decent clothes.
Now a homeless person is Singapore is a rare sight, I have seen perhaps two in my time here. But to actually have someone you know turn out to to be homeless?
I often wondered what happened when people fall through the gaps in Singapore, when they have no family or friends to catch them in the net when everything falls apart. I guess this is it then.
My friend had already bought him some food and drink and so we arranged to meet him later with supplies and a plan. We immediately went to action stations. We had no idea what the protocol here was. In London, there are shelters where you can just walk into as a homeless person. Here, it seemed from our frenzied looking on the internet, calling around and asking friends who might be in the know, you had to be referred to a shelter by an agency.
So we found out where the local family services centre who would be able to refer him was, put together a bag of men's clothes that were going unused, and various items to help him stay fresh and then my friend went to go and meet him at the pre-arranged time and spot that we had discussed earlier.
Time passed, he didn't show, she scoured the neighbourhood to looking form him. We analyzed all the possible reasons why he didn't turn up...
- Maybe his dignity had got in the way and had caused him to shy away from accepting help from people who might have well been strangers, and strangers who might have just seemed like silly expat do-gooders
- Maybe he had spent the two hours in between topping up his alcohol levels and then had passed out somewhere
- Maybe some or not all of the story was true and so he had not wanted to follow up on it. But even if this was indeed the case, times must have been exceedingly tough to even get to that point.
And the list goes on.
Whatever it was, we beat ourselves up over not keeping him with us over that time, to let him have some time to doubt and waiver, and slip a little bit further down the slope he had begun to descend. If we'd kept him with us perhaps we could have gone with him to the family services centre, but really there's so many levels of complexities that could have stopped that happening too.
Whenever we're out and about, our eyes scan the neighbourhood like lasers, trying to see if he might be sitting or sleeping somewhere under shelter nearby. But we haven't seen him since.
Sometimes you only get one shot at these things and nobody tells you what to do in these situations. I tend not to regret things in life, but this is a firm exception. If only there weren't so many complex factors involved, if only we had devised a perfectly executed plan then and there and not let him slip away.