Finding paths to housing security amidst the many roads that lead to homelessness

Academic Views / Saturday, August 13th, 2022

Reviewing a new report on homelessness, AcademiaSG Editor Teo You Yenn says the groundbreaking study has radically transformed what we know about homelessness in Singapore and set a high standard for all future work on housing insecurity. She gave the following remarks as the respondent at the launch of the report, Seeking Shelter: Homeless During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Singapore, by Ng Kok Hoe and Jeyda Simren Sekhon Atac.

Thank you, Kok Hoe and Simren, for the opportunity to preview this excellent report and to comment on it today. I will first highlight some significant contributions the report makes and then briefly discuss its implications for where we go next.

The report was launched at a seminar organized by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on 11 August 2022. It can be accessed here.

First, it’s worth pointing out that before Kok Hoe decided to do this research to understand homelessness in Singapore, there was no comprehensive data about how many people are sleeping rough in Singapore, and why and how they are in this situation of extreme housing insecurity. His pioneering work has radically transformed what we know about homelessness in Singapore and put on the agenda that to understand homelessness, we must take into account people who are sleeping rough, not just people in shelters or institutions, and regardless of their official housing status. Through this work, we have also become alert to the idea that, to understand homelessness, we must hear from homeless people their accounts of their lives and experiences. From here on, these will be no-brainers. This is obviously how we must conceptualize, account for, and try to understand homelessness. But please note and remember that this was a gaping data void prior to Kok Hoe’s work.

Second, Kok Hoe and team have developed a robust methodology for identifying and recording homelessness. This is no small feat. Homelessness is stigmatized. It is hidden from view, geographically spread out, and somewhat mobile. The methodological challenges of studying it are two-fold: on one side are all the typical dilemmas of social science research — how to operationalize homelessness as concept, how to sample sites where people might be sleeping rough, how to think about ethical obligations to subjects who occupy very marginal spaces in society. A second layer of challenges go well beyond most social science research because a comprehensive count of homeless persons requires large numbers of volunteers who are not trained researchers.

How did Kok Hoe approach these challenges? From an initial single-night limited-site street count in 2017, to a comprehensive island-wide street count in 2019, to the current report’s inclusion of persons sleeping rough as well as persons in shelters, Kok Hoe was able to test and improve on various strategies for locating, identifying, and accurately recording the number of people in Singapore who do not have adequate shelter or housing security. Further, he developed rigorous procedures for educating and empowering volunteers and ensuring the return of robust and accurate data. I highly recommend you read the methodology sections of both the 2022 and 2019 reports. They are superb models for how to develop research practices that are clear in purpose, ensure high quality data, embed consistent ethical habits, and galvanize the work of teams. All future work on homelessness in Singapore will have the benefit of Kok Hoe having done this groundbreaking work, and the benefit of systematic and transparent recording of how the conceptual and empirical labor was done. All future work must now be measured against this high standard.

Dynamics and causes of homelessness

Apart from capturing the numbers of people facing housing insecurity, the research also makes an important contribution in collecting data about the dynamics and causes of homelessness. Through nuanced analyses of survey and interview data over two studies, the team do two important things: first, they identify the conditions necessary for attaining housing security. This may sound simple, but in a context where we regularly presume that housing is accessible to everyone and that housing insecurity is a rare problem, we often overlook the many conditions that need to be in place for housing needs to be met. These include regular work and predictable income, financial buffers, social interdependence and familial stability. As their analyses show, breaks to any of these components can create crises situations that are very difficult to repair.

A second thing the team does with survey and interview data is this: they identify important variations among the homeless population. This 2022 report, in particular, highlights the challenges faced by transnational families during the pandemic, as well as homeless women. In identifying variant pathways leading to housing insecurity as well as variant experiences in homelessness, the report allows us to see the range of social conditions that matter for understanding homelessness. These include immigration policies and housing policies and work conditions and wage regimes and societal values and norms. With these insights, there is no backsliding to individualistic accounts and lame claims that things can only be resolved “case by case.” Here is evidence of the importance of structure — of rules, regulations, social conditions shaping individuals’ options and lives. If problems are structural, solutions too must be. As Singapore gradually resumes normality after two and a half years of the pandemic, it is more important than ever to keep these variations in experiences and conditions in mind, because the resumption to “normal” is otherwise likely to be highly uneven. 

Teo You Yenn and Ng Kok Hoe at the launch event held at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

How to make it a higher-priority problem?

To sum up, the contributions of the work are in agenda setting, in the design and execution of rigorous methodology, and in the identification of key social forces. What are some implications of these contributions for what happens next?

First, the report itself directly and explicitly points to policy areas and social service practices that can be improved or transformed. In providing empirical data and theoretical analysis, the work gives policy makers and practitioners in the social service sector concrete materials to work with as they imagine and craft better solutions to improve housing security and prevent housing insecurity. Social service practices, housing policies, wage policies, health and public assistance, data collection and further research—the studies’ findings are useful for rethinking what can be done at multiple sites.

With the bleak and urgent problems we face today, it can often seem like things are at a stalemate and positive changes are hard. The social sciences — whether economics or sociology or policy studies — are fundamentally oriented toward identifying and understanding problems on the one hand and imagining ways of improving on human wellbeing and flourishing on the other. For the second part — the work of imagination — to proceed, empirical evidence of alternatives and possibilities are crucial. The homelessness report captured what happened during the COVID-19 “circuit breaker” in 2020, in which although people faced new and intense challenges, the high priority placed on sheltering them also led to expansion of shelter spaces and reduction in rough sleeping.

This evidence of what can be achieved when something is prioritized indicates a range of possibilities to resolving housing insecurity.  It gives us a glimpse then not just of how the problem of homelessness manifests but also that it is a problem whose scale indicates immediate possibilities of resolution, if it is prioritized. Finally and relatedly, in placing this report in the public realm, in modeling rigour, independence, and transparency, Kok Hoe and his research team, including the hundreds of volunteers who have taken part in this work, have demonstrated that placing research in the public consciousness, raising awareness about social problems, is an important part of making a problem a priority.  Moving forward, the public, or various publics — civil society, journalists, students, social workers, academics, et cetera — have to continue the work of ensuring that housing needs, housing security and insecurity in its many forms, and poverty and inequality more generally, remain things we care about and make high public priorities.

Further reading

Ng, Kok Hoe and Sekhon Atac, Jeyda Simren. 2022. Seeking Shelter: Homeless During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Singapore. Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.—seeking-shelter-(final).pdf?sfvrsn=8544320a_2

Ng, Kok Hoe. 2020. “Social Housing.” Pp. 10-25 in Housing Practice Series—Singapore. United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).

Ng, Kok Hoe, and Yu Wei Neo. 2019. “Housing Problems and Social Work Advocacy in a Home-Owning Society.” Journal of Social Service Research 46(5):671-84.

Ng, Kok Hoe. 2019. Homeless in Singapore: Results from a nationwide street count. Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

Main image: URA Gallery by Daigordai