Ps Andrew Khoo, founder of S’pore’s first homeless shelter, has given refuge to over 900
Angels, God's messengers of truth and light, still walk amongst us today. This Christmas, Salt&Light brings you the moving stories of five "Angels in our Midst".
by Tan Huey Ying // December 23, 2019, 3:19 pm
Ps Andrew (middle) started Singapore's first shelter for the homeless out of the belief that his Christian faith is best expressed through meeting the needs of the community. Photo from New Hope Community Services Facebook page.
Like running, hope is a discipline. So says Ps Andrew Khoo, 61, the founder and chief executive of New Hope Community Services (NHCS).
The grandfather of two has run just over 50 marathons since he completed his first marathon in 2003, which was also the year that he set up Shelter for Men-in-Crisis, Singapore’s first shelter for the homeless.
But Ps Andrew was not always so fit.
At one point in his life, he was in such bad shape that he nearly fainted during a game at church camp which involved him pushing a coconut across a field using a stick.
“That was how I realised I was so unhealthy,” says Ps Andrew. “I thought I’d better do something to keep myself healthy.”
That “do-something” mentality soon made Ps Andrew into a serial marathoner. And it is this same spirit that drives this man to continue pushing the boundaries of services available for the underprivileged today.
Wired to serve
In 2003, Ps Andrew was shepherding a small family church when he was approached by four homeless ex-offenders.
Freshly discharged from the halfway house, they needed temporary housing while they worked to reintegrate into society. Ps Andrew’s name had somehow come up as a possible avenue for help.
For the previous seven years, Ps Andrew had been providing pastoral care to stroke patients at a local charity.
In that time, he had grown certain of two things: First, that serving the community was the best way he could express his faith and testify of God’s love; and, second, that he was wired with pastoral heart and abilities to serve the underprivileged.
To whom exactly, was unclear then. But Ps Andrew was actively surveying the sector as he sought the Lord’s direction.
While Ps Andrew did not know these men, he knew they were God’s answer for him because they surfaced a need that had not yet been met by the social services available at that time.
His personal vision and direction gained sudden clarity.
So, Ps Andrew offered them shelter in his church, which operated out of a rented home behind Sembawang Shopping Centre, making them the first residents at the Shelter for Men-in-Crisis (recently renamed Transit Point@Spooner Road).
Take in first, talk later
As word about the shelter spread, the small church was soon home to 18 previously homeless ex-offenders.
“But I must make the point that my motivation to serve the needy and homeless is never because I want to preach the Gospel to them. Our good must not have any strings attached.
“We are God’s workmanship, created to do good works in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:10) simply to help a fellow human being.”
In fact, Jeremiah 29:11 was one of the main reasons that Ps Andrew named this charity New Hope Community Services. “Everyone is looking for hope at some point in their lives; everyone needs hope. And when they don’t sense any hope, that’s where people get depressed.
“Hope gives you that kind of energy, positivity and strength to explore the future.”
One year later, in 2004, Ps Andrew registered NHCS as a charity with one full-time staff, a caretaker who lived on the church premises, and several volunteers including himself.
“Generally, my approach was to take in first, talk later,” explains Ps Andrew, a hands-on doer who managed everything from the intake assessment, day-to-day operations and even the discharge of clients who had found housing solutions.
Trained not as a social worker but as a pastor, the learning curve for him was steep. Even in the most basic aspects like house rules, mistakes were made.
Some rules were straightforward, such as not returning to the shelter drunk. Other rules were less intuitive, though equally necessary in order to safeguard fellow residents and the communal peace. One such rule was not lending money, regardless of how little the amount.
Ps Andrew recounts an incident where an individual had borrowed several dollars from others in the shelter and did not return the loan. It was only when relational tensions amongst the residents surfaced that Ps Andrew was alerted to the problem. He adjusted the rules accordingly.
The ‘big-ness’ of God
His work for the homeless has not come without personal cost: In the first two years of NHCS’ existence, donations income barely covered even half the operating expenses of bills and food rations.
Ps Andrew made the decision to terminate his and his daughter’s insurance policies to free up cash.
Isn’t that extreme, one might wonder. But Ps Andrew holds to the principle that before he asks others for help that requires a sacrifice on their part, there has to be an element of sacrifice on his part too.
There were bad days, however, such as when his daughter entered polytechnic and he could not afford to buy her a computer.
He got angry. Why did I put myself in this kind of situation, he asked himself.
“But that’s why hope is a discipline; we have to have a disciplined hope,” Ps Andrew quickly clarifies. “This means you hold on to your faith even in ‘bad’ circumstances.
“Running is my thinking and praying time, my time alone with God,” says Ps Andrew. Having already started running purely for fitness reasons several years earlier, it became his place of respite and where he would renew his hope in God.
“You trust in the ‘big-ness’ of God and discipline yourself to focus on the Word of God, on His promises and not on your problems.”
Miracles through prayer
It was a conviction that was sorely tested. “At the end of every month … wah, you pray very hard,” Ps Andrew says with a laugh.
“Of course, now looking back, I have no regrets. It was a good experience of trusting God to provide, because that’s when miracles happened” – like the time when a woman gave Ps Andrew her gold chain and told him to sell it so that she could help cover some expenses.
In this way, for two whole years, month after month, God provided the funding that NHCS needed.
With an average of 200 to 300 applications to the shelter each year, the decision was made to rent a second property in 2006. Enough funding was raised and the property was converted into Transit Point’s second shelter, bringing its total capacity to 40 people.
That same year, the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (now renamed as Ministry of Social and Family Development, MSF) approached Ps Andrew with an invitation to open a second shelter – this time, for displaced families.
Other larger organisations had turned down the proposal, but Ps Andrew was quick to accept it, purely because it was a “good way” to share God’s love with others.
In 2007, five HDB flats in Marsiling were put in NHCS’s custody as the Shelter for Displaced Families and Individuals. “These were near to where I stayed so that it was easy for me to do the inspections,” says Ps Andrew.
From there, growth took off. The service and staffing models that came with a government-funded programme soon enabled NHCS to expand its services capacity even further. At one point, NHCS ran shelters in up to 40 HDB flats around Singapore.
Today, 16 years later, NHCS has been a safe refuge for over 900 families and even more individuals.
The soft-spoken pastor finds much joy and meaning in serving the underprivileged. He remembers the first Christmas party that NHCS threw for their residents at a HDB pavilion in Yishun: “I literally went home in tears. I was able to share the true meaning of Christmas to a multi-racial audience – which pastor has such opportunities?
“Here, I can talk about God without the fear that someone will complain against you. Because they know I am sincere in trying to help and we have some form of relationship.
“But when you hear their stories, you will realise that you are never enough. Their problems are too big for us; it reminds us that we need God to help us, wherever we are.
“Prayer is powerful. And that’s where I never fail to say: Let’s pray.”
One observation that he has gleaned is that the homeless often have very few friends, and those who end up in the shelter are often at the end of their tether. So four months ago, Ps Andrew started spending his Sunday mornings conducting a fellowship group with the residents at Transit Point.
“These men need someone to come alongside them. We can come in to help them find the right path. Each and every one of us can be that reason for someone to have hope.”