Photo taken by: Andreia Ko
We are gathered around a table. There are bowls of delicious curry in different colours, accompanied by styrofoam boxes of Biryani and with little plastic bags of poppadom scattered around the table. The air-conditioner is blowing gently, cooling the humid room. We are having awkward conversations around the table - the kind where you ask more and more about what the other person does… until you realise – oh this feels like an interview.
We’re waiting for Tom. He was out doing deliveries on his motorcycle when it started raining. As I sat there in the comfort of the air-conditioning, I found myself impatient, looking at my watch. I need to leave at seven-thirty. It’s already seven! How are we going to have the discussion?
Then he appears. He’s surprisingly dry. He takes off his helmet at the door. It’s strange to me that he doesn’t take it off after getting off his motorbike, or throughout the 12 floors the lift sails through, or on the walk back to the unit.
“Sorry, sorry!” He quickly races up to put his things down before having a seat. His red raincoat is still on. Throughout the meal, he never takes it off. It’s almost as if this was another brief stop, before he has to race off on his motorcycle again.
What is the Open Home Network?
Tom is part of the Open Home Network (OHN). The OHN is a network that began during Singapore’s Circuit Breaker (or lockdown) in April 2020. It matches people in vulnerable housing situations or those without a home, with families that can. He’s been in this home for ten months, which will be coming to an end in two months. The discussion today is about how we can move forward. It’s also to address the big elephant in the room - can he continue to stay?
Tom has been reluctant to ask, because he feels he has imposed on the host long enough. He feels even more embarrassed after being unable to pay the agreed sum because of his unstable income.
The conversation starts. It’s like a dance around a big elephant, with gentle sways to avoid the elephant.
“How’s your experience of this compared to the shelter?”
“Wah, this one like 5-star hotel!”
“What have you found great about this place?”
Tom was stumped for a moment, “Wah, I don’t know how to say…"
He nervously rubbed his fingers together, “I’m the kind of person who doesn't like to praise people in front of the person.” He’s shy. The hosts, Tess and Paul [Pseudonyms], joke that they need a passing grade from the volunteers. We laugh.
We move onto Tom’s future plans. We share the snags we’ve encountered due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The initial plan of moving to a rental flat had been delayed due to COVID. We discuss options. There aren’t many available. He doesn’t feel able to approach his aunty, if his son is already staying there. We are slowly approaching the elephant.
“Would you like to continue staying here?” There is a pause. “Of course, I want to, but I don’t want to disturb Tess and Paul…”
Tess comes in, “We would really like to continue hosting you, but things have gotten a bit too much lately with my work and my studies. It’s not about you, and I know you’ve taken a lot of effort in cleaning, knowing how particular I am about cleanliness.”
The volunteer adds, “Don’t worry, just because this formal hosting ends, it doesn’t mean you can’t contact each other, or you can’t remain as friends.”
Friends. Family. Community. Even though Tom’s story was drawing to a close, the Open Homes Network struck me with 2 reminders.
1. Building healthy communities starts with seeing.
Not all of us may be ready to host a stranger for a year. You don’t have to. One sharing stood out for me that night. Tess shared about how each night, they would switch off the lights at eleven. Then a few seconds later, they would hear, ‘pom, pong, bom’, as Tom scrambled down the stairs. He would start microwaving his Maggi, washing his clothes and doing his chores.
When they were not around.
It struck me because even though Tom was living with them, it was almost as if he didn’t want to be seen. He wanted to remain in the shadows, to not ‘disturb’ and enter their spaces, when they were there.
But Tess and Paul had seen, heard and responded to his needs.
Majority of society which serves our needs today, pass us by - faceless, nameless… they simply become a blur. They blur into the background. As we get our things, we tend to forget those who get those things for us.
Parcel in, person out. Check in, check out.
When did I last notice the delivery man who delivered my parcel? Or the cashier at the checkout, bagging my groceries, standing weakly after an 8 hour shift?
It doesn’t take much to say, “Thank you, would you like a drink?”, to acknowledge the work they do, to recognize their toil, to see them for who they are. Healthier communities don’t take big actions. They are built by the small things, the small actions and the small moments of connection. Connections that move beyond a transaction – I pay you, therefore you give me; but one that develops into a relationship. Every transaction allows for a moment of connection - offering someone a drink, asking about their day as you check out groceries or making small talk with your neighbour in the lift.
Building community is a choice. Everyday is a new opportunity.
Will you take the chance?
2. This world is bigger than you and me.
I don’t say this to guilt-trip anyone or to say, “you should do this for the good of our world!” I’m not here to preach, but I’m here because I know… kindness kindles hope.
The story of Tom’s hosting is something that touches me deeply because two years ago, I too was ‘homeless.’
No, I wasn’t sleeping on the streets.
I had a house. But I had no home.
But two elderly women opened their homes to me every month, inviting me for meals. They staved off my loneliness of feeling foreign, unknown, and unseen. They saw me for who I was and loved me for who I am. Just as Tess and Paul did with Tom.
What does a home mean? A home means many different things to different people, but at its heart is family. One that sees and accepts you for who you are, without expecting anything in return.
This National Day, as we remind ourselves of why we call Singapore home, let us also remember that there are those who are far away from home. Including these individuals as part of your home is not a zero-sum game.
The pie doesn’t get smaller if we share it. It gets bigger when we share it. Our hearts grow bigger.
Our hopes for a better world, burn brighter.
As we left that evening, Tom left with us. He went out for more deliveries. Ah, that’s why he didn’t remove his raincoat.
As volunteers parted for their weekends, Tom slipped silently into the night.
I got on my bike and returned home.
But for Tom, another. For another home has only just begun.
John is excited about building healthier workplaces where young people can flourish into their purposeful and passionate selves. He writes for young people looking to live with purpose and passion at liveyoungandwell.com.