A house isn’t necessarily a home and a home, not always a house.
One of the milestones of life that society has ingrained in us is that to be “someone” in society you have to own your house and have several investment properties to boot before you are considered as an up-standing member of society.
For many this remains only a dream, the luckier ones are renters but for those who cannot afford rent on top of utilities and food, they find themselves on the streets, sleeping on cardboard boxes on pavements and park benches. Some manage to hold on to a job but the odds are stacked against them when they are living on the streets, straddling between the Kuala Lumpur we know and the Kuala Lumpur that slowly emerges from the dark underbelly of the city when the last of the city workers have returned to the comfort of their homes.
I have walked the streets of KL in the wee hours of the morning before, careful not to trip over an outstretched leg or arm while straining my eyes on the horizon in a calculated attempt not to make eye contact with the eyes that I can feel boring holes in me as I walk past.
I have assisted groups to pack and distribute food to the homeless, efficiently forming a human chain to pass packs of food to volunteers who then thrust those packets into eager out-stretched hands. I bet they too focused on the hands and not the eyes.
We avert our eyes because it is truly impossible to stare into the eyes of a person living on the streets and not acknowledge them as an individual human-being. You can’t look at their eyes and not feel the grief, disappointment and frustration that fills their soul.
I couldn’t and I didn’t until I met Uncle Ramlee (not his real name) at the Pit Stop Community Café, thanks to Joycelyn Lee, one of the founders of this oasis of warmth in a desert devoid of humanity in the heart of KL.
Uncle Ramlee shatters whatever stereotypes you might have of homeless people. Neatly dressed in a clean shirt and pants, sporting a cotton French beret that had my stomach in a knot because it was just like the one my late father used to love wearing.
Clean shaven with impeccable manners and speaking in fluent English, this gentleman in his late sixties cut a more impressive figure than some of my dates. For some reason, I decided not to sit across the table from him and I asked if I could sit next to him instead.
I wanted to look at him, really look at him. Not like an object or a curiosity but to really see him, his eyes, the lines on his face, the missing teeth, the way he clenched his lips when he speaks and I wanted to listen, intently to him.
And when I started listening, that is when my heart, despite the shattered mess that it was already in, continued to crack into a million tiny pieces.
Uncle Ramlee has been living on the streets since 1973, the year that I was born. For my entire existence on this planet, he had been moving from state to state, from Johor right up to Penang until he finally settled near the Bangkok Bank area in KL almost 30 years ago.
“This area here,” he tells me “was my home. I was comfortable here with my friends. It was easy to find a meal and by 2am the city will be quiet and we could sleep.”
“What happened then? Why did you move? ” I asked.
“They came for us. The authorities.”
“In the middle of the night, when we were fast asleep, they woke us up with their sticks, shouting and yanking us by the scruff of our necks, pushing and prodding us into trucks. They didn’t care that most of us were old, they shouted at us, not bothered that some of us can’t even walk properly.”
My eyes filled with tears as he recounted the horrors of that night.
“You know girl, they don’t have respect anymore. Malaysians have lost respect for their elders and for people in general.”I replied that the police are usually gruff and lacking in the manners department. He gave me a wry smile and told me that some of the worst abuses he has seen and endured was at the hands of officers from government departments tasked with ensuring their welfare.
A lump formed in my throat and I wondered what kind of species of animal would manhandle elderly homeless people? Uncle Ramlee continued his story and told me about how he was thrown in jail and that it was thanks to Joycelyn and her “lawyer friends” that he got out.
“I knew I couldn’t stay here anymore, even though it was home to me, I know the authorities would not leave me in a peace. I lost most of my belongings in the raids and had to start over. I moved further out of the city centre, closer to the outskirts of the city. It is more difficult to find a meal but at least the authorities haven’t started to chase us away there.”
Hope For The Future
As it was almost August when I met Uncle Ramlee, I asked him if he remembered Merdeka Day in 1957.
I could see his eyes travel back to a happier time in his life as he recounted how excited he was standing in the stadium clutching his father’s hand.
“I was just about six years old,” he chuckled “and I didn’t really know what was going on except that it was something important.”
“I could sense that the people around me were very excited but at the same time there was a nervous air of apprehension.”
“Similar to what we felt on May 10th recently?” I asked cheekily.
He threw his head back and laughed heartily, with a smile he said “this change is good isn’t it?”
“I guess it is. What are your hopes for this new Malaysia?”
Gazing at what was quite possibly a puzzled expression on my face, Uncle Ramlee went on to explain that what every homeless person wanted was the freedom to live their lives with dignity. They didn’t want to be herded into cells where their freedom was restricted.
“All we need is a place to sleep at night and the opportunity to work or to ply a trade. We have talents, we have experience, I myself was once a golf caddy. Do not treat us like we are nothing or worse, criminals to be under lock and key. We have skills that we can share with others but no one takes the time to find out how we can contribute to society. I have ideas on how we can eradicate homelessness but no one wants to listen to me. They just treat us like animals.”
I look at him in silence, wishing I could give him a place he could call home. I couldn’t help but see my father in his face and I shuddered wondering if would he end up dying all alone and the tears just rolled down my cheeks.
Joycelyn grins at me like a Cheshire cat, knowing full well the emotional symphony that was playing out within me as the peaceful atmosphere of the café was broken by the excited hustle and bustle of the dinner service for her street clients.
Uncle Ramlee can’t wait for dinner to be served and told me he was already drooling because Joycelyn had cooked labu masak lemak, a typical Malay dish that he hadn’t tasted in a long long time.
I felt a stab to my heart again as I tried to compose myself.
This was home to Uncle Ramlee. A place he was treated with love, surrounded by friends, walking the streets he called home, always knowing that a warm, tasty meal was there for him to fill his stomach. But after 30 years, he was driven yet again away from his home, this time by the “authorities”. How many years he has left, I don’t know.
He told me he is tired, walking further and further each day, carrying a heavy knapsack filled with the only earthly belongings he has, to evade getting caught by over-zealous enforcement officers.
Uncle Ramlee may not have a property deed in his name but he has heart, he has soul and to me he is an eminent person. “You pick the place… to lay me down where peace is prevalent and hate can’t be found.”