Richard, a retiree who is currently the Secretary of Breadline said, “We are just giving out money. And it fulfils a certain need in society. There are a lot of people whose main problem is [being] short of money. Singapore is not a cheap place to live in.”
Started in 1975, the idea for this group came about when Betty Khoo, a journalist with the Straits Times then, was assigned to write a piece about poverty in Singapore and came face to face with the plight of the destitute. Moved by what she saw, she decided to do more.
At that time, the Catholic Welfare Services was giving out loaves of bread to the elderly poor. However, this service was only available from Monday to Saturday, Sunday being a day of rest. The volunteers decided to fill the gap and Breadline was born.
By his own admission, Richard, who was then a colleague of Betty's sister, was “arm twisted” into helping out. But once he started volunteering, there was no turning back.
Through their work, the volunteers discovered there were many other poor families which were not being reached. Whatever social welfare assistance these families received was largely used for rent and utilities, leaving them with very little to live on.
Breadline then initiated the “Family Adoption Scheme”, the financial assistance program that is still going strong to this present day.
One case left a deep impression on Richard. Back in the 1970s, he got to know about an old man who was looking after his grand nephew after the boy had been abandoned by his mother. Together, they lived in an attap house and conditions were very basic. Electricity came from a generator and a nearby well was their only water source. The $70 he received from social welfare went into paying the rent and utilities. The boy also needed pocket money for school. There was just no way to make ends meet. Breadline stepped in with a donation of $70 every month and this lasted for many years until the boy left school and found a job and they were able to get by on their own.
With easy access to drugs and the corrupting influence of gangs where they lived, the old man recognized how important it was to keep the boy in school and how critical that extra $70 was in making that happen.
“He really had tears in his eyes. He said, 'If not for you people, I don’t know what he (the boy) would have become',” Richard said. “From that you realize that [the] little that we [did had] made a difference in someone’s life.”
Breadline currently serves 200 families with the help of 80 volunteers. The amount disbursed ranges from $50 to $400, depending on the particular circumstance of each case. These families are referred by social workers from Family Service Centres and hospitals. Volunteers from Breadline then make house visits to verify the authenticity of each case. When there is reason to believe that the beneficiary may channel the money to other uses, Breadline volunteers offer help in other ways, such as giving out supermarket vouchers and asking for receipts, or making utility bill payments on their behalf.
Assistance may last for as short as three months to as long as a few decades. When asked if this kind of help will encourage a culture of dependency, Richard said: “They are physically, mentally unable to work. We’ve got those who are bedridden. You can only wait until they pass on. We also realize we don’t want them to be dependent. But if you are crippled and you cannot work, what can you do?”
Other cases that he has seen over the years include a man with diabetes surviving on public assistance of $400 a month who, after an operation, needed special dressing that cost $350 a month. On top of that, he had an 11-year-old daughter to support. Or the case of a man with prostate cancer who became incontinent and needed to buy adult diapers, a cost which drained away one third of the welfare support he was getting.
So could the government perhaps do more to assist such people? While agreeing that more could be done, Richard believes that society at large has a role to play in caring for the poor and that more people should get involved in helping the less fortunate.
He said : “Every little bit helps. You cannot expect the government to do everything. We have two hands, two feet right? We have to learn how to do things ourselves. That’s where you learn your values.
“The problem with any big organization and with the government is that there must be rules,” he said. “And when you have rules, there are all these people who fall in between the cracks. And it’s organizations like Breadline which try and patch up the cracks. So you do need other organizations that are small, nimble and flexible.”
Richard gave an example of a recent case to illustrate this point. “I went to visit this family. The father was just released from jail. The three children didn’t even have money to go to school the next day. And the table was bare. So I had to go down immediately to their house, give them $300 in emergency funds and tell the social worker to apply for whatever (assistance) in the meantime.”
To stay nimble and flexible. That’s a philosophy that has kept Breadline small, consistently serving about 200 families in the community. Its influence however, has been growing steadily. Breadline works with expatriate bodies such as the British Association and the Netherlands Charity Association, as well as corporations, to extend its reach, referring cases to these partners and replicating the Family Adoption Scheme through these entities.
According to Richard, the operating expenditure of the organization last year was $330,000. The administrative cost? No more than $2000. They are able to accomplish this because Breadline has no office, no paid staff, and no assets. Even the volunteers have to cover their own transport costs.
He said matter-of-factly : “Whatever money we raise we feel should go towards the poor.”
Such dedication to the cause has earned for Breadline many supporters. Some volunteers, like Richard, have even stayed with the organization for more than 30 years. Even then, Breadline is always on the lookout for new blood.
Apart from getting new volunteers to commit to regular home visits, another area of need is for young volunteers to step forward to tutor the children of these adopted families. New volunteers will need to shadow the more experienced ones during the home visits and be supported through the process until such time that they feel comfortable taking on a case on their own.
At the end of the day, to qualify to do this work, one thing is needed.
“It’s a very simple process,” said Richard. “You must have a heart, that’s all.”
Story by Ko Siew Huey / Pictures by Biddy Low.
Find out more about Breadline and how you can contribute at their website.
Read also: 8 years and 2,500 meals a day for the needy.