Investing in the wellbeing of the homeless & urban poor: Kak Long and Kak Su’s mission towards restoring hope, dignity, and respect

To Pit Stop Community Café’s frequent clients, especially to street children, Joycelyn Lee and Andrea Tan are their Kak Long and Kak Su. In every sense, Pit Stop is a family unit, with family values reflected in its programs.

Figure 1: Rela crew standing watch during distribution. Source:

In a typical family household, we are taught not to waste food, to pursue education, learn useful skills and to always, as much as possible, have dinner together as a family. In the larger context of vulnerable communities, Pit Stop’s food rescue, culinary arts, and dinner service programs reflect just this.

As founders of Pit Stop Community Café, both Joycelyn and Andrea insisted that it is not a charity program.

Instead, they are investing in communities; acting as agents of change to educate and empower their clients towards a better life and future. Their clients come from various backgrounds, including unemployed individuals, abused women and children, children of abused women, individuals trapped in poverty, and orphans. A huge proportion of their clients are homeless.

Life events such as relationship breakdowns, job loss, mental or physical health issues, or substance misuse, often cause further dejection. Being poor and homeless can make many of these problems even harder to resolve.

“A couple of years back, a girl came to Pit Stop and decided to ‘adopt’ us. We were her Kak Long and Kak Su” said Joyce. When she was around 3 or 4 years old, she found her mother murdered. Her father was ill with HIV and a drug addict. She was put under the care of her grandparents and eventually stayed with her uncle. She was a teenager when her father died, and her uncle kicked her out of the house accusing her of being the cause of her father’s death. She jumped from one foster home to another countless time and eventually ended up in the streets. “We suspect that she may have learning difficulties, unable to sit still and would often hit her head on the wall. It was heart-breaking to us” Joyce added.

“We are trying to highlight that to those who found themselves on the street with abuse and mentally challenged background, there are no development markers or life goals to aspire to. They are constantly in fight or flight survival mode. Unprepared and ill-equip with life skills needed to be a productive member of the community” Joyce explained. 

Homelessness is devastating, dangerous and isolating. As agents of change, Pit Stop Community Café aspires to restore hope, dignity and self-respect among its clients and return their sense of belonging by providing opportunities to become part of a productive community.

This is a very tall order given that “it goes beyond giving food, provide training and job opportunities and hope that they will survive”, explained Joyce. “We realized early on that most of our clients have lost their semangat or the will to move on. They struggle to see what they are capable of achieving when their dignity has been eroded” she added.


What is the cost of homelessness and urban poverty to the government and nation?

“Homelessness is a symptom, not the underlying problem. Absolute poverty is.” Andrea lamented. In urban areas such as Kuala Lumpur, low level of education or skills, lack of employment opportunities, low wages, large family size and lack of basic amenities are among the main factors leading to urban poverty.

For instance, urban poor parents largely have limited access to nutritious, good quality food and often resort to cheaper unhealthy alternatives such as instant noodles, canned food, condensed milk in place of formula milk for babies and children in general. Diets high in salt, sugar and fat lead to a host of poor health outcomes especially for children. The poor habits developed during childhood are likely to be taken into adulthood and the pattern continues. Impact of poor diet include being underweight or overweight, tooth decay, constipation, lethargy, headaches, poor mental health, irritability or anxiety, stomach aches, poor physical growth, and sleep problems.

When these impacts are brought into classrooms, that is where the cycle of homelessness and poverty can intensify and disrupts their education. These children are more likely to develop behavioural problems, poor concentration, and problems across their emotional and psychological development.

The list of potential problems continues, with increased rates of depression, anxiety, ADHD and even a lower IQ.

“We have yet to have studies done, at least not to my knowledge, on the cost of urban poor lifestyle diseases, cost of unplanned pregnancies and abandoned babies to the public healthcare system” added Joyce.


What does the Covid-19 pandemic mean to urban poor?

Nothing changes, except that the Covid-19 pandemic amplified the vulnerabilities of the urban poor and the people living on the streets. During the Movement Control Order (MCO) period, hundreds of homeless people were housed in temporary shelters, given food, access to basic amenities and healthcare. Job placement programme has been initiated by the government to approximately 800 individuals. However, many have returned to the streets and are living with the added risk of infection without adequate access to clean water (where on occasions, they are found collecting water condensation from air-conditioning units) and resorting to multiple re-uses of facemasks and other hygiene paraphernalia.

There were several reports of those who were given jobs placement, however, left after a few days of working. Andrea informed that “even before the pandemic, Pit Stop negotiated with several partner companies for job opportunities and is faced with the same problem. They left and soon were back on the streets. Why?”

“What the public did not realise is that these communities have been living on the streets for an extended period, so much so that they were not equipped to handle matters beyond having food and shelter. Everything is about survivability and nothing else matters” Joyce explained. “What should be accompanied by the job opportunities are counselling and follow up sessions, just to check if they are coping well with their new 8-hours structured working lifestyle” she added.

Negotiations could be made with the potential employers to provide staggered payment structure, starting with daily wages over the first couple of weeks, leading up to weekly and eventually monthly pay. They need the first few initial daily wages to pay for immediate needs such as housing, food, transport and communication bills. Managing their finances can be daunting and thus require guidance and supervision.

To some, it is a big change from their previous life and may prove to be too much for them to adjust. 


What can we do?

Joyce explained that their focus now is on food packs distribution for those in need, sourcing some raw materials through the food rescue programs. “Delivering food and care packs during the MCO was a very humbling, ‘hit-me-in-the-gut’ experience, knowing that at the end of the day, we can go back and have food on the table” she reflected.

For the longer-term, the ladies are aiming at the younger generation of street kids and teenagers for education and apprenticeship. “We try to take them off the street by no later than the 6th-month mark. Any longer than that, they would have formed a bond with the existing community and found a new family” commented Joyce.

In the short to medium term, individuals who would like to assist can contribute financially or by volunteering their time.

Joyce stressed that to address the source of the social inequities faced by the homeless and urban poor, policy and initiatives must be designed around good science, with reliable data, and considers input from practitioners such as NGOs, civil societies, social enterprises and welfare organisations working with the homeless and urban poor.

“We are one of the many on-the-ground organisations that have direct communications and first-hand experience with these marginalized communities”. Joyce calls for organisations that have the capacity and resources to invest in studies to inform policy and decision-making processes.

Several such studies can include nutrition concerning people living in PPRs or other low-cost housing areas; and its impact on children living in those areas. “We need to have own data to back-up our decisions and we are here and looking forward to contributing to the process” stressed Joyce.

“Studies on the effect of inadequate sex education, poverty and the psychology of the vulnerable communities are critical. It also must leverage on the feedback and experiences from organizations such as ours” urged Joyce.

So far, there has been no long term, comprehensive studies done on various aspects of the effects of urban poverty and homelessness on the public system.

“Come talk to us. We are living in unprecedented times where it is particularly hard for the homeless and urban poor. Help us restore hope, dignity and respect for them”.


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Joycelyn Lee and Andrea Tan are the founders of the Pit Stop Community Café based in 101, Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, Kuala Lumpur.