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  • Sim Chunhui, Programme Executive

Life as a Habitat HomeWorks Staff

When I first met Mdm Chua, I was a new staff to the HomeWorks team in end-2013. She was in her late 40s, beautiful, tall and tan-skinned with lovely eyes that were distant and sad in her humble Toa Payoh flat. Later I found out from her social worker that she suffers from depression. On my visits to her one-room flat in preparation for the session, she always made an effort to interact with us, but on some days she really struggled to pull herself out of the depths of her depression.

I always believe that the state of a house reflects the homeowner’s state of mind. In Mdm Chua’s case, her house was cluttered and absolutely crawling with bed bugs. It looked bad enough on the surface, but I later found out just how the bugs were really EVERYWHERE.

Unsurprisingly, Mdm Chua was exhausted from the lack of sleep caused by the countless bed bug bites, and nodded off sitting outside her house during the short 15-minute fumigation session. She was also unwell and had to be hospitalized for a few days before our scheduled clean-up date. Fortunately, her neighbour offered to help by opening Mdm Chua’s house to us and observed our clean-up in her absence.

Left Picture: Bed bug nests on the wall

Right Picture: Floor, chairs and bedding full of blood streaks from bed bugs squished by Mdm Chua.

It was only when we started to get down to work when we realised how bad the bed bug infestation really was.

The bed bugs came in a myriad of different sizes and were in every conceivable crevice of the house – in clothes, the refrigerator, and even the plastic storage boxes where they nestled among spare plates and cutlery.

Whenever we handle tough cases like these on Project HomeWorks, we almost inevitably become the centre of attention, discussion and derision among the neighbours. While we were discarding some of these bug-infested items, I saw four to five men at the bins ripping open our neatly bagged trash as if they were on a treasure hunt looking for a grand prize hidden somewhere in the bags. I tried stopping them by explaining that all the items were infested with bed bugs, but it was futile. I’d never felt so invisible

Back at the home, another neighbour complained about how our work was putting her home at risk of having bed bugs as they would now creep over to her home via the common corridor. While I understood her concerns then, I should have been patient enough to meekly offer her the other cheek instead of retorting harshly that we were trying our best to help her neighbour so could she please be more understanding!

We usually get a crowd of neighbours gathering around the house we’re serving, passing snide comments like:

“Don’t bother. She’s just lazy. Even if you do so much to help her today, the clutter and dirt will come back.”

“So smelly/ dirty/ filthy. How can anyone live like that?”

“You guys are making such a mess and blocking my way; you’re such a nuisance.”

“God bless you, but you should just go home now because she doesn’t deserve your help.”

“You guys are throwing so many things away. So wasteful! I’m going to call the media down to report you!”

Such comments have can have a demoralising effect on our volunteers and often agitate the homeowners. Many times, I’ve had to play the role of a mediator. I can’t help but wonder whether a home such as Mdm Chua’s would exist in a world where neighbours truly took care of one another. I can only hope that the work and effort of our volunteers helps to spread more love in our heartlands.

Cleaning Mdm Chua’s home was no easy feat. There were so many bed bugs that when we washed the floor, we had to repeatedly unclog the drain which was teeming with drowned pests. The smell was enough to make my stomach lurch; a heady combination of strong pesticide and something rotten.

We started at 9am and kept going until almost 6pm. I wish we could say that the one-day effort was a great success and that we successfully transformed the house. However, as we were putting in the new furniture, the detestable live bed bugs started crawling out from nowhere all over the walls.

By the end of the session, I was exhausted. It felt slightly surreal going back to my own home where everything was clean and bug-free! But as I showered, scenes from the day overwhelmed me and I broke down in tears. I was inconsolable for at least half an hour. Why did Mdm Chua have to suffer like this without anyone helping her?

Another year went by before I received a request again from a social worker to look into Mdm Chua’s case again as the bed bugs were back, and true enough the infestation had almost reverted to its original state.

This time however, the volunteers and I were more experienced, better organised and had more bed bug extermination tricks up our sleeves. (Click here to see photos from the session that took place at the last session)

After two years of serving in this neighbourhood, it feels almost like a second home to me. Although we are now better acquainted with many of the residents, many of them still fail to understand why we bother to help people like Mdm Chua who appear too lazy to look after their own homes.

I suppose to bystanders, our efforts may seem in vain or go unappreciated. Nevertheless, I feel blessed to have fellow colleagues and volunteers who share a common belief that a decent home is a basic human right that should be given to all regardless of who they are, where they come from or what they are going through. We will continue to see our vision of “a world where everyone has a decent place to live in” through for Mdm Chua and many others like her.


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