How to lose a flat in 6 years

DOWNWARD SPIRAL: Sam and Mary sold their flat to pay off the debts they had incurred. At one point, the couple with three children were living on the beach at East Coast Park.

SINGAPORE - If only we hadn't borrowed. If only illness had not struck. If only the business had not failed. If only I had realised help was available.

These "If onlys" litter this young family's journey from a four-room flat in 2006 to being homeless and living on the beach.

Life was rosy when Sam, 32, and Mary, 28, got married in 2006. They bought a flat in Woodlands and had a son soon after that.

Sam was an officer on board a ship, drawing about $2,000 monthly. But things started spiralling downwards when Mary's father was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2008.

Mary, now a nursing student, said: "My mum remarried, so I had to look after my dad. I'm the eldest girl among six siblings."

She has an elder brother and her sisters are still schooling.

To help his wife cope, Sam quit his job and worked as a courier-service driver, earning about half his previous salary. To supplement his income, he also worked as a valet at night.

But this loss of income had serious consequences, especially with the medical bills and mounting household expenses after their second child arrived in 2010.

Mary's 51-year-old father died several months later, but soon after that, her grandfather became ill too.

And the nightmare began again. Struggling to cope with the mounting bills, the couple started borrowing from illegal moneylenders.

Mary said: "We were so desperate. We couldn't cope any more and nearly divorced."

Sam said: "It was a stupid thing to do. When the time came to pay up, I borrowed from another 'ah long' (Hokkien for loan shark). I didn't think of how to repay (the debts)."

Unable to cope, they sold their flat in 2012 and moved in with Mary's grandparents.

They used the $100,000 profit from the sale to pay off the debts they had incurred in the form of credit-card bills, hire purchases, loan-shark debts, outstanding medical bills and money used for daily expenses and transport fees, which came up to about $80,000.

With the remaining money, Sam started a logistics business using rented vans, but it failed last year.

He then began working again, doing a similar job with a company that provided him with a van.

Mary started her nursing course last year and did not work.

Then came the next blow: She and her family had to move out after her grandfather died in January. By then, the couple had three children and Mary's grandmother, 70, did not want the family living with her.

Mary's mother was unable to help as she had her own difficulties.

With nowhere to go, the family ended up living on the beach in East Coast Park. For a month, they were on tenterhooks, living with the constant fear of being discovered by the authorities.

Sam said: "When the police came to patrol, we would pack up and drive to another spot. We would stay a few hours there and five hours later, we would move again."

Sam even resorted to taking his two-year-old daughter and four-year-old son along on his delivery rounds.

He said: "They ate and slept inside the van. The van was very messy.

"My supervisor would ask me why I took my kids around. I hated to explain my situation. When they asked, I became fed up because it reminded me of my problems."

Soon, his eldest child, eight, also stopped going to school because his parents were too tired to take him.

Fortunately for Sam, a man with whom he shared his plight advised him to call the ComCare hotline (1800-222-0000). Sam made the call that very day.

By nightfall, he and his family had a roof over their heads as New Hope Community Services, one of three transitional shelters in Singapore, stepped in.

Sam said: "That night, they took us in. I was so happy."

The shelter uses Housing Board flats rather than a central home to house its clients. The couple and their children now share a three-room flat with another couple with five children.

With help from social workers, the couple are working towards getting their own flat soon.

Their eldest child is back in school and is receiving tuition from volunteers. They have also managed to secure childcare places for the two younger kids.

Sam, who has only Primary 2 education, plans to upgrade himself by taking courses after his wife completes her nursing course next year.

He said: "It is only now that I start to plan. I was very naive and immature."

This article by The New Paper was published in MyPaper, a free, bilingual newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings.

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