A SINGLE mother supporting four children, 48-year-old Madam Surinah (not her real name) "inherited" $2,000 worth of housing arrears and utility bills upon her divorce five years ago.
She worked hard to pay them off but her $450 salary as a cleaner barely allowed her to feed her children. As the debts ballooned, everything went downhill.
She said: "I had panic attacks, lost my job several times and all these affected my health and relationship with my children."
To help people like her, voluntary welfare organisation Care Corner wants to raise $1 million to help the needy pay off their household debts and arrears.
Called the Jubilee Fund in honour of the nation's 50th birthday next year, the idea behind it is also informed by the biblical concept of Jubilee, in which debts are cancelled every 50th year so that everyone gets an equal chance to start life afresh.
The Jubilee Fund will disburse $2,000 each to 500 vulnerable families to help them with their bills. It is meant for families with less than $800 per capita and they can be identified by Family Service Centres and charities.
Social workers at Care Corner said they have seen how unpaid bills can debilitate those struggling with the incarceration, ill health, disability or death of a family member.
Ms Agnes Chia, director of Queenstown's Care Corner Family Service Centre, said: "Due to their disadvantaged circumstances, they find it extremely hard to break free from these debts and the burden of recurrent debt leads to a sense of futility that harms them and society."
Latest studies from the US show that if the poor worry about their obligations and how to meet them, they will not have enough mental capacity to calculate the odds and make good decisions such as saying no to high-interest loans or buying on instalment.
Madam Surinah tried to plan long term but it felt like a losing battle. "I felt helpless because while I did try to take up some sewing courses to earn money on the side, a lot of my time and energy was spent on just surviving."
While cash handouts have been proven to work, they are most effective if the poor are also trained in life skills to help themselves. That is why Care Corner hopes to rope in 200 volunteers who will be trained to help the needy manage crisis better.
Yesterday, its staff and volunteers combed the streets of Queenstown to identify people who need further help, as part of a 50-hour community walk that ends tomorrow. The walk may cover other estates in future.
Ms Geraldine Foo, 37, assistant senior social worker from Care Corner, said of the Jubilee Fund: "While it is important to teach the poor to fish for themselves, sometimes they first need a big fish so that they have the strength to continue fishing."
Donations to the fund can be made online at www.jubilee.sg or by way of cheque to "Care Corner Singapore Ltd".
This article was first published on Jul 26, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.