KUALA LUMPUR is a stunning city. A bird’s-eye view of the nation’s capital from any distance will leave you in awe, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. It’s especially beautiful on evenings the sun melts into the horizon and makes way for the bright lights of the towering buildings which dot the city.
On ground, it’s no different — couples walk hand-in-hand out of some of KL’s flashy bars and mammoth malls. Groups of friends toast to a good night out at one of the city’s upscale eateries while scores of teens smile through the glow of their smartphones at cosy cafes which line some of the more historic districts of the city centre.
But by 4am, the vibrant buzz of the city dissipates into the darkness. With the exception of the occasional motorbike wheezing in the distance, Kuala Lumpur comes to a temporary standstill. Well, almost. A closer inspection of some of the city’s inner lanes and landmarks reveal a community of people who find solace on their single piece of cardboard. Some sleep curled up in a fetal position to keep themselves warm from the cool of the morning dew.
Others sit up talking, forming the only audible chatter at this unholy hour of the day. For them, these public sidewalks and lanes are the places they call home.
They Took My Shoes is a 124-page offering recounting the tales of KL’s homeless community. A part of KakiSeni’s WOMENGirls project, the book has recently hit the stands in the Klang Valley.
HOME ON THE STREETS
Over the last couple of years, the issue of homelessness has been making the headlines — sadly for all the wrong reasons. To keep the image of the city squeaky clean, authorities have tried everything, from trying to ban soup kitchens, to placing metal dividers on benches and, as some would attest to, ferrying the homeless to highways outside the city.
The issue of homelessness in the country isn’t new, but the growing numbers signify a bigger problem. In a survey conducted by Kuala Lumpur City Hall (Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur) last year, the number of homeless people in the city has seen a significant increase. In 2014, the number stood at 600. In 2016, the figure was closer to 2,000.
“To be honest, I never paid attention to the issue of homelessness until I started writing this book,” reveals Michelle Yoon, co-author of They Took My Shoes. “The homeless are the invisible people of the city because we often dismiss or ignore them. What we want the public to know is that everyone has a story, including the homeless.”
A FACE AND A NAME
You can tell it’s almost 5.30pm by the amount of traffic building up along KL’s busy roads. I’m off to meet the book’s other co-author, Malaysian actress and model Carmen Soo who’s waiting for me at the Pit Stop Community Cafe on Jalan Tun H.S Lee.
This old three-storey shophouse is where many of the homeless featured in They Took My Shoes pop in to fill both their tummies and their hearts. “We run soup kitchen dinner service twice a week,” shares Joycelyn Lee, the cafe’s founder and owner. “But this isn’t just a place where we give out food. It’s a place where we give them their dignity back,” she says, referring to the homeless, or as she prefers to phrase it, street clients.
Inside, volunteers are slogging away in the kitchen preparing food for the soup kitchen dinner service.
“We have tables and chairs here because we want the homeless to sit down and have a meal like they would in any other cafe,” she says, pointing out that the Pit Stop Community Cafe runs on a pay-as-much-as-you-want scheme. “We charge RM1 at the minimum because it’s important that they feel the dignity of paying for their own meal.”
Many of the homeless on KL’s streets have no family, says Lee. “These people are family,” she confides, her eyes darting between the kitchen and the entrance where some homeless people have become volunteers.
“It’s about giving them a second chance at something — like cooking or serving or helping run the place. It gives them a sense of purpose,” she remarks, adding that some volunteers run English language classes for the homeless on the second floor.
A sense of purpose, says Soo, is exactly what most homeless people are looking for. “There’s an assumption that homeless people are mostly dangerous drug addicts or lazy. But the truth is that many of them don’t earn enough to pay rent in the city. Meanwhile, those who do have a past history with drug usage are immediately crossed out at job interviews.”
Admitting that she too was somewhat cautious at the beginning, Soo continues: “It’s what we’ve grown up with — to believe that homeless people are dangerous. In fact, after a while, once I got to know them better, I’ve never felt safer on the streets.”
For more than half a year, Soo and Yoon spent a few days a week heading to the spots most homeless people in KL call home — at the doors of Segi College, the sidewalks of Menara Maybank in Pudu and on the sprawling grounds of Masjid Negara. There, they sat down with homeless people of different backgrounds for hours, getting acquainted with them. “It was when I spoke to them that I realised how different everyone’s story was,” shares Soo, adding that a majority of the homeless in the city came from smaller towns in search of a better life.
Some were cheated by people who promised them jobs, others had been abandoned by their families or had escaped abusive relationships. “I think the only thing that really shocked me is that some of them choose to be homeless because they’re either extremely lonely or just feel more freedom on the streets than at home.”
Loneliness seems to be a common theme among the homeless. “The one thing Soo and I talked about was how none of these people on the streets have anyone,” notes Yoon, who says that many of them made bad life choices, which resulted in their state of homelessness. “Maybe if they did have someone to talk to or confide in, their circumstances would be very different today.”
MEANING OF LIFE
Both authors admit that in the process of writing the book, their respective perceptions of life were altered. “Hearing their stories made me realise that we take things for granted only because we have them — the roof over our heads, the food on our table, the friends and family we have,” confides Yoon, adding that the sense of optimism, which the homeless seem to possess continues to surprise her.
“These people know where they have been in their past, but they don’t know where they’re going. Yet they still have a lot of hope that if they keep trying, their circumstances will change,” notes Yoon, who was roped in to the project after working with Kakiseni in its These Are My Superpowers book in 2015.
When writing the book, which features a number of homeless people and their stories, both authors contemplated printing their full names. According to Yoon, there’s a good reason why they decided to include the names of those they interviewed. “At some point, most of them have lost something — family, spouses, money, jobs, friends, homes. The only thing from their past that they’ve managed to keep are their names. And names are how we introduce ourselves — in that sense, it’s the only identity they still have left.”
The book, acknowledge the authors, may not be able to change our system or alter our perceptions overnight, but it does at least give a face, a name and a story to the people who are hidden behind the glitz of the city.
They Took My Shoes
Authors: Michelle Yoon and Carmen Soo