Getting The “Elephants” Out Of The Room: Inter-Agency Clean-Up

A plucky team of People’s Association officers from Potong Pasir Community Club, who won the PS21 Star Service Team Award, soldiered past multiple rejections and moved mountains of junk to create a safer and more pleasant space for residents.

Imagine rubbish piled up to the ceiling, mysterious liquids oozing from plastic bags and cockroaches crawling and flying about, everywhere.

Those were what the People’s Association (PA) team from Potong Pasir Community Club (CC) found — not at a rubbish dump, but inside a four-room flat at Toa Payoh in early 2015.

“We were literally running out of the house!” exclaimed Ms Zan Tan, the CC’s Deputy Constituency Director, recounting her first visit to the apartment.

Still, the PA team took it upon themselves to organise the clean-up of the flat. The junk had accumulated there over a period of 10 years.

It took them and other volunteers five full days to complete the task. At the end of their endeavour, they had removed about 10.5 tonnes of rubbish — enough to fill three large skid tanks, and almost the weight of two large elephants.

Early obstacle

Clearing the junk was the simplest part. The real challenge was being able to enter the flat in the first place.

The PA team had first heard of the rubbish problem in late 2014 when neighbours complained about the constant stench emitting from the flat. But when the officers tried to visit the residence, they were barred by the homeowner, an elderly woman.

Neighbours described the flat’s occupants — the elderly woman’s daughter-in-law and her adult grandson — as prone to loud arguments in the middle of the night. The duo would shout at other residents if others so much as glanced at them.

The PA team faced the same hostility in their early attempts to make contact. They sought the help of the Town Council, but the Council too was rebuffed. Officers from the Housing & Development Board (HDB) and the National Environment Agency (NEA) were also roped in, as the PA team thought up different ways to gain access into the flat. For example, they asked NEA officers for support in checking the place for possible mosquito breeding. Alas, no one could get past the front door.

“We were at our wits’ end,” Potong Pasir CC’s Constituency Director Wilna Tan recalled. But she and her team persisted, motivated by the concern that the hoarded junk was a fire hazard and could endanger the community.

They tried many more avenues, including asking the Singapore Civil Defence Force to confirm the threat of the accumulated trash becoming tinder for fires. Finally, they turned to the Singapore Police Force. After nearly four months since their first knock on the door, the PA team finally gained access into the home.

A difficult task like this may not be part of the PA team’s usual work, but as Mr Gabriel Seow, also a Deputy Constituency Director at the CC, put it: “As long as it is something that helps the community, it is and will always be part of our job scope.”

Whether it is supporting a recently retrenched resident, or pairing up with an elderly resident to go on a short trip organised by the CC so that the resident gets to travel abroad, the team does its best to help the community with the same determination as in its encounter with the Toa Payoh family.

To them, the community centre is more than a place for residents to sign up for courses and gather for activities. Rather, it is there where residents socialise and come together to help one another, a place of acceptance and support — something the PA team takes pride in going the extra mile to make happen.

As long as it is something that helps the community, it is and will always be part of our job scope.

Strength in numbers

The team recognises that in many cases, their ability to successfully render help to residents also requires the cooperation of other agencies.

In the Toa Payoh hoarding case, they needed different agencies to come together — not just to help them gain access into the flat, but also for the entire clean-up process. The Town Council officers offered expertise and contacts for cleaners, and also provided bulk bins.

NEA officers visited the flat and the common areas to check for mosquito breeding, while the HDB sent representatives to advise on the safety of the walls and windows.

The neighbours and the other children of the elderly lady expressed their thanks to the officers for providing a cleaner, safer living environment for the grandmother.

Describing how the team had rallied the officers from various agencies, Ms Wilna Tan said with a laugh: “I told them, ‘All must go. You all must go. HDB, it’s your property. Corridor is under Town Council. NEA, maybe got mosquito breeding.’”

A strong rapport underlies the cooperation between the PA team and the other public agency representatives. The constituency director said this camaraderie was built up over years of simply being willing to help each other out. “If someone from the NEA calls me and says, ‘Eh, I heard there’s some high-rise littering, can you help me check?’ I’d say, ‘OK, I help you look.’ Then I’ll WhatsApp her pictures, tell her, ‘This is what’s happening. Go and get your guys down.’” she said.

The PA team, being closest to the residents, she added, are attuned to happenings on the ground. This allows them to bridge the gap between other public agencies and citizens.

Her advice to public officers: “Do not be deterred by challenges along the way. Even though we are from different agencies, as long as we work together, we will be able to improve the lives of the community.”

    May 11, 2016
    Fiona Liaw
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