“Many haven’t experienced God’s love, so let’s be on the lookout”: Yio Chu Kang Chapel, which opens its doors to the homeless
Gracia Lee // January 18, 2020, 10:48 pm
Every night, befrienders from Yio Chu Kang Chapel come down to fellowship with the homeless staying in their church. The church also provides beds, warm showers and snacks. Photo by Gracia Lee.
Jack* had been in a relationship for four years when his partner vanished with almost $200,000 of his hard-earned savings, leaving him with just $10 in their joint bank account.
In one moment, his world was turned upside down. There had been no warning signs. Repeated attempts to contact her yielded no fruit, and it was quickly clear that she was gone for good.
Many homeless people live in danger, discomfort and want as they struggle to put their lives back together.
Robbed of his savings, Jack, who was in between jobs, could no longer afford his rent of $500 a month. He had no family to turn to and was too embarrassed to seek help from his friends.
For seven months, he spent his nights sleeping on public benches. He was too depressed to look for work, and had no money for food or transport. Desperate, he once scavenged in the trash for half-eaten bento boxes, devouring them secretly in a bathroom stall.
Like Jack, many homeless people live in danger, discomfort and want as they struggle to put their lives back together. However, since 2018, seven religious organisations, including five churches, have tried to make these rough sleepers’ lives a little easier by offering their premises as a Safe Sound Sleeping Place (S3P).
An S3P is a place where the homeless can stay at night for free. One of them is Yio Chu Kang Chapel, which opened their doors last November.
During a night walk by the Ministry of Social and Family Development last December, Jack was spotted, given food and brought to the Chapel.
Though he arrived at midnight, there were six volunteers who received and befriended him. That night, for the first time in seven months, he laid his head on a proper bed.
Shelter and friendship
In the six weeks since Yio Chu Kang Chapel became an S3P, three others like Jack have sought shelter there. The S3P is run by the church’s community outreach arm, Bless Community Services, in partnership with the church and other social services.
The homeless were either brought in when they were spotted during volunteers’ night walk, or referred to the church by family service centres. The church also accepts walk-ins.
At 9pm, the Chapel’s basement carpark transforms into a dormitory that can accommodate up to 10 men.
Upon arrival, each stayer is given a bed, pillow and blanket. They can enjoy warm showers, where soap and shampoo are provided, or help themselves to hot beverages and snacks placed in a little pantry.
There is also access to free WiFi, and the option of washing their clothes in the four washing machines and dryers, which were donated by church members.
“They don’t just receive shelter but also friendships. There would be no more isolation because they are connected to us.”
Before they leave the place at 7am, stayers can place their belongings safely in a locker.
If the stayer requires it, the church also provides immediate financial help in the form of food and NTUC vouchers, while waiting for social workers from social service agencies to process his mid- to long-term financial aid applications.
More than all this, the church extends warm company. Every night, two church members come in to prepare the place and receive the stayers. These befrienders sit and chat with them for one to two hours, listen to their stories and struggles, and pray for them if they allow it.
Pastor Rick Toh, the church’s lead pastor, said: “We want to restore the homeless person in a holistic manner. At the end of the day, they don’t just receive shelter but also friendships. There would be no more isolation because they are connected to us.”
Love takes risks
The idea to set up an S3P took root last July during Micah Conversation, a Christian social justice conference, which Ps Rick and a few other pastoral staff members had attended.
“Homeless Hearts’ and The Last Resort’s sharing was very thought-provoking,” recalled Ps Rick. Homeless Hearts of Singapore is an organisation that befriends the homeless, while The Last Resort provides homeless youths with a home to stay.
“Both of them, when asked during the Q&A, said separately that they wish more Christians and churches would open up their place to take care of the poor and needy, or those who are homeless,” said Ps Rick.
“That stirred me to ask: What are we doing?”
He added: “As a church we’ve been wanting to reach out to those who are broken and help them to become disciples. We’ve been ministering to the sexually and mentally broken, and I realised that we could start ministering to the relationally broken too.”
The following month, he pitched the idea to his board of elders, kick-starting four months of intense research and discussion.
One initial apprehension was whether opening up the church would pose safety risks.
“Will we love enough to say, ‘Let’s do it?'”
“There’s always this fear lah, are they gangsters or drug-addicts, these kind of things?” said Ps Rick.
So the leaders decided to put in place the necessary precautions, such as CCTV cameras. They also set ground rules — no alcohol, drugs, weapons, gambling or smoking — and established clear boundaries as to where the stayers are allowed access.
“We try as much as possible to make the church feel safe, but at the same time we tell people that love takes risks.
“It is still possible to have a scenario where a stayer really causes problems, but are we ready to take the risk? Will we love enough to say, ‘Let’s do it?’ Or will we keep thinking of this 1% possibility and say no because of it?”
An outward-looking church
Thankfully, the church’s leaders and members took well to the idea.
When a recruitment call for befrienders was made, almost 10% of the 400-strong congregation signed up within two weeks.
One such volunteer was Ronald Wong, who had developed a heart for the homeless after going on night walks and trying to be homeless for one night. “When the church started this, I was happy to help,” said the lawyer, who is in his early 30s.
“We don’t want to be a church that is looking in, but a church that receives strangers and connects with them.”
Apart from being a befriender twice a month, Wong also went the extra mile to invite Jack and another stayer to a Christmas party at his home.
“During some days like Christmas and New Year’s, there are certain people in our communities who may not have family or friends to celebrate with, and it can be very lonely and depressing for them. Our homeless friends in our S3P will spend the day largely by themselves out on the streets, so I thought, ‘Why not?'”
Other church members, too, went above and beyond by taking the stayers out for breakfast.
Their enthusiasm has encouraged Ps Rick: “I feel like there has been spiritual development in our members. People are willing to be sacrificial and give up their time to be here.”
Though they have but a few stayers, his desire is that this platform will train them to be more mission-minded.
“I hope that our members will grow more and more confident in connecting with strangers until it has a spillover effect (in their lives). Anywhere they are, I hope they will be consciously connecting and reaching out to the poor and needy.
“We don’t want to be a church that is inward-looking, but a church that welcomes strangers and connects with them. There are many people out there who haven’t experienced God’s love, so let’s be on the lookout.”
Being Plan B
Despite the amenities they provide, Ps Rick and his team has noticed that at least 12 rough sleepers have decided not to sleep at the Chapel when offered a place there.
While there are various reasons for this, pastoral staff Samuel Lin, who is in charge of the ministry, said a common one seems to be a reluctance to move away from familiar areas.
“One rough sleeper shared with us that at a particular time, a friend will come and give him free food. He knows where to get the free showers. He knows where he can keep his stuff. To move here would be to uproot himself.
“Some have problems navigating their way (to our Chapel), because it’s not a familiar place, and others don’t want to spend money on transport.”
“If this is not their Plan A, we don’t mind being their Plan B. We want them to have options.”
But the church is not fazed. “Currently what the Lord has given to us to handle are these people. It’s not about growing this number but doing it well in terms of improving our care and love,” said Ps Rick.
“If this is not their Plan A, we don’t mind being their Plan B. We want them to have options.
“If there are more churches who are willing to do this, and their locality is much better, we would be so glad to share our workflow and process with them.”
At the end of the day, Ps Rick and his church just want to do their best to love whomever God has placed under their roof — be it one person or 10.
Ps Rick said: “This is not a ministry where we want to have many people. That’s not the measure. Even if it’s one or two, we just want to do it well.”
Their sincerity is evident to Jack. “You can sense and feel that this is really a very caring place,” he said. He now proudly calls the Chapel his home, “for the time being at least, until I get my own”.
With the church’s help, he has found a full-time job and will start in February, after which he will be able to apply for a rental flat.
“I’m happier now. It’s a new lease on life. New friends.”
In the few weeks that he has spent at the church, he has made more than 20 new friends. He attended the church’s Christmas and New Year’s service, and occasionally joins in for events. Ps Rick has also invited him to his family’s reunion steamboat dinner to be held in the church this Chinese New Year’s eve.
“I’m happier now”, said Jack. “It’s a new lease on life. New friends.
“Even if they can’t shoulder my burden, at least they can lend a listening ear. I think that’s very important. When you sound out your frustrations, you can get the burden off your chest, instead of letting it get stuck inside.”
The gift of friends has allowed him to better weather life’s setbacks. “Now, I can laugh at myself. I believe God has better plans for me,” said Jack, a Catholic. “From this incident, I can start a new journey to help those in distress also. That’s why, when I get my accommodation, I will go and help others too.”
*Name has been changed to protect his identity.