We don’t see them. We might see one, or two, here or there. But, really, mainly, we don’t see them. They are invisible. Or rather, forgotten. Forgotten by the society, their families, their friends, to the point where they just blend in… and disappear. They? The homeless.
They are all around us, and yet we fail to notice them. That is why a group of volunteers go out on the streets at night. To provide food, drinks and, more importantly, love.
When I say I volunteer at Soup Kitchen, people imagine me putting on a pair of plastic gloves, dragging a huge cauldron and starting making my own potion, adding ingredients to my liking, before splashing it in bowls and handing them out to a crowd of grumpy and ragged homeless.
After all, it is called Soup kitchen, right? Right. But, hey, we are in Malaysia. We don’t give soup. We give nasi lemak. Do I cook the nasi lemak? Oh my god, no, no, no way, I have no idea how to cook it. Well, maybe I do, a little. But let me tell you what happens.
This is how it goes. At 8.30pm, every Wednesdays and Sundays, I hop on my motorbike, catch a friend and whizz my way to Bangsar. This is where we meet. We check the van, the food that has been delivered earlier by a caterer. We greet newcomers, and then carpool together to the first stop.
We make two to three stops each night, according to the number of homeless who come. Lately, we have been distributing 350 bags of food in the areas of Chow Kit, Kotaraya and Masjid India. And, yes, sometimes, 350 bags of food is not enough.
I still remember my first time. I had been invited by my friend Zuhri and had arrived, all fresh and innocent, directly in Chow Kit. The van arrived… and the frenzy began. I was greeted by a tornado of a woman. “Hi! You’re new? Good. Follow me, come here. You will be giving the bags. Open it completely, give it to them, make sure it stays well open so that others on the line can add biscuits. Don’t slow the line. And remember to smile. It’s really important. Ok?” Err… Ok.
And it started. Bag after bag after bag, smile after smile after smile. The homeless were flowing in front of me, one after the other, too fast for me to actually give them an identity. And then we went to Kota Raya. And then, the last bag of food was given. But there were still people in the queue. And this man came to me, as all the others before him, and I had to look at him in the eyes.
“Sorry bang, makanan dah habis.” (Sorry brother, the food’s finished.)
The look of understanding in his eyes. He would not eat tonight. And the next one was just behind, and the scene repeated itself. And again. Before the message had reached the queue, I had seen a life of hardship in the eyes of 10 people. And I felt powerless.
Yes, not everything is always pink in the life of Soup Kitchen. But the problem doesn’t come from the homeless themselves. They come from freeloaders. Let me tell you one example. I was at the beginning of the line, regulating the flow of homeless. This woman, well dressed, visibly without any kind of problem, passes by. She sees us, realizes there is free food, and put herself in the line. I am one meter away from her.
“Excuse-me, madam, this is only for homeless.”
She looks at me with a sullen look. “Can I just have a glass of water? I’m thirsty.” I’m human, I say yes, I let her stay in the line. The next thing you know, she got her glass of water… and grabbed a bag of food and walked away. As if nothing has happened. As if a real homeless has not just been denied his dinner. I was so mad. It is not just one example, it happens so often.
People who hide their car keys in their bags. Youngsters with the shape of their iPhone bulging through their pockets. We can’t search them, we can’t deny them the right to take a bag. We can’t prove anything.
Oh yes, not everything is always pink in the world of Soup Kitchen. But then, we do have our upsides. Those moments that surprise you, put a smile on your face and make you feel light and grateful for the rest of the day. Or the rest of the night, for that matter.
Having an old wrinkled man come to you and shake your hands, looking at you straight in the eyes, without saying anything. Sometimes, words are not needed.
Being in the line, giving out hot coffee on a rainy night and having each and every one of them greeting you, thanking you. Knowing you are helping people who need it, not some sulky middle-class primadonna.
Seeing a father push his 3-year old daughter forward, and she looks at you, and she just has this innocent bright smile that only kids know.
Meeting one of them in broad daylight and, wait, he doesn’t shy away. “Hello miss, how are you doing?” Just a simple greeting, shy but strong. An acknowledgement.
Another night, observing a man give up his bag of food to a woman. She has arrived too late to get food. But he, is in a wheelchair.
Or this other man, helping a young Burmese who can speak neither Malay nor English, and who is lost and alone.
Can you see the beauty in those people? We can. That’s why we keep on going.
Homeless people live in the shadows of the society. Getting food is a vital need, but the need for communication is equally important. It is what keep them going, connected. It is what makes them want to get forward and try to get out of the streets.
Soup Kitchen tries to provide this all. In spite of the rain, of the difficulties, of the freeloaders, we keep on going. For them. For people who are, in a way, already our friends.
For more information, contact the Pertiwi Facebook Goup.
Note: This article is the written version of my 6th Toastmasters speech, focused on vocal variety. It forces me to approach anecdotes and leave other details aside, to reach the learning objective.