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A Rookie Volunteer’s Experience At Pit Stop Community Cafe Serving Street Clients

The Pasar Seni or Central Market in Kuala Lumpur is brimming with history and in recent years has seen an increase in hipster cafes nestled in pre-Merdeka shop lots and buildings. Amidst the buzz of a thriving city, Pasar Seni’s streets have also become home to local soup kitchens toiling away to feed the increasing number of homeless and poor in the city. 

The pitiful sight of men sleeping on sidewalks and cardboard lined pavements and people with tattered clothes with multiple recyclable bags on their shoulders is unavoidable. Some may reach for some money to donate, others may just walk past without a care, but the majority would rather avoid eye contact and quietly walk further away. 

Source: GLENN GUAN/The Star

The homeless have existed for years and instead of walking further, perhaps it is time to contribute and connect. 

The homeless community doesn’t just revolve around those who have fallen from society such as drug addicts or school dropouts. In 2016, the data suggested that there are 1,500 – 2,000 street dwellers in Kuala Lumpur[1]. The current number of homeless individuals nationwide remains unknown. 

Taking A Pit Stop Along The Way

At least 500 metres away from the Pasar Seni LRT and MRT station, away from the F&B establishments, near Bangkok Bank, there lies a different kind of cafe. A cafe that serves the homeless community or the gelandangan

But the magic of Pit Stop Community Cafe (PSCC) truly happens behind the half-closed shutters.  

Pit Stop Community Cafe, a social enterprise founded by Joycelyn Lee and Andrea Tan in 2016 started by serving 67 street clients. A year onwards, more than 50,000 people and 80,685 portions have been provided to their street clients[2]

Source: Pit Stop Community Cafe

Over the years, the number of street clients gracing their doors has increased and in 2019, they served anywhere from 120 to 200 street clients per day[2]

Notably, there has been a growth in the homeless community at their doors since the pandemic started. 

There has been an increase of 30-40% in street clients that we are currently feeding.– Michael, Manager at PSCC

When the shutters were slightly ajar for the afternoon volunteering session, we entered a makeshift warehouse. One of the frequent volunteers, Lorna Ling, was sweeping the floor. With stacks of boxes at every corner neatly arranged and the sound of clanging metal in the kitchen as Aisha, the cook, is preparing today’s meal.  

PSCC organised two different volunteering sessions, one in the morning where the team would prepare the ingredients for the daily menu. On that day, it was slicing French beans or kacang panjang and peeling onions. The cafe implemented a maximum of two volunteers per individual booking, an SOP that was put in place after past incidents of confirmed group bookings that failed to show up. 

Source: Wiki Impact Team archive

There have been times when Andrea and I and a couple of our regulars run the whole dinner service on our own because of some very irresponsible people and because of this, we have no more than two pax per booking policy. – Joycelyn Lee, Pit Stop Community co-founder[2]

However, volunteers are harder to come by during the pandemic period. 

Yet, there are gems who have come to volunteer at Pit Stop constantly with the likes of Lorna who is a regular for the past three years and Elaine who came for the afternoon volunteering session and has been volunteering for a long time too. 

We also have university students who come by occasionally to volunteer. But these days, volunteers are harder to come by. – Lorna Ling, a regular volunteer 

Michael, the manager in charge, miraculously found a position at PSCC during the pandemic. He was previously from the travel industry and was retrenched and without a job for six months. During that time, he was volunteering at PSCC and was later offered a role in the organisation. 

A Cafe For The Homeless

Pre-pandemic, the Pit Stop Community Cafe is a daily cafe that runs one hour per day for PSCC cardholders. The cardholders are allowed to dine in and choose the food they would like to have. Sometimes the food consists of rescued leftovers channelled by different parties to ensure no food wastage occurs. 

Source: The Star

In 2017 alone,11,006.39 kilograms of food were rescued[3]

Food wastage as a result of duplication of giving to the community has been an issue in the streets of Central Market and other venues where homeless community shelters are located. Sometimes the occasional ad hoc donations from passersby worsen the situation. 

PSCC used to operate six days per week, but it has since been reduced to four days a week as an effort to reduce food wastage with more donations streaming in for the homeless community[4]

But, the organisation had to adapt to the pandemic and even with the shadow of COVID-19 slowly fading away, PSCC is determined to maintain the existing SOP. 

Still Serving Food, But In A Different Way

Instead of opening the cafe for sit-in meals, PSCC has since started packing their meals into pre-packed food packages complete with a balanced main meal, water and fruits. 

The process behind food preparation is done meticulously, basic hygiene is kept throughout – volunteers would have to wash their hands and wear gloves before touching any food items. The kitchen is off-limits for volunteers to reduce the risk of contamination and only the resident cook, Aishah and her assistant are allowed in the kitchen when food is being cooked. The floors are swept and mopped frequently to avoid pest invasion. 

We are strict with hygiene and food handling because, at the end of the day, it is the homeless community that suffers or is in pain after consuming the food.  The person who was behind it was left unaffected.– Michael, manager at PSCC

The food menu is changed every day with consideration of the nutritional values; a helping of protein, vegetables and carbs. 

Source: Wiki Impact Team archive

A full bowl of rice, vegetables and a source of protein; on that particular day, was spiced tomato chicken and stir-fried french beans and carrots. The filled pack was passed down the line straight into a plastic bag; complete with a bottle of water, a hard-boiled egg and orange slices. 

Every day 150 food packs are prepared, and 50 packets go to Anjung Singgah; a temporary shelter and intervention for the homeless. Like well-oiled machines, the volunteers perform their tasks. It didn’t take long for 150 packets to be completed.

Lorna, who is a familiar face at the establishment, is often quick at her feet, one step ahead as she prepares at the sideline to ease the process. 

Sometimes there are occasions when the street clients would have a better menu. Sponsorships from the general public who want to make a difference or give back to the community on their special days would also provide hearty meals to the homeless. 

In the past, there would be red bean soup served as a dessert or cupcakes donated by other organisations. 

When The Shutters Are Lifted

 When the pandemic hit, PSCC, like other soup kitchens, acted fast and quickly assembled food distribution. Initially, the team planned to wheel the food packets to a set location. However, they were hoarded by the homeless individuals. And police stepped into the picture, with the siren blaring – they fled the scene.

Now, they maintain a set process. RELA officers would be guarding and minimal contact between the volunteers and the street clients. Even to this day, the distribution starts at 5pm and the street clients would have to queue up, waiting for their turn. Temperature checks are done, and one of the RELA staff would sanitise their hands before receiving the food packets and a new face mask.

Source: Wiki Impact Team archive

Some people find the way we do things quite fussy. But those who have been volunteering with us for a while would know why we insist on things to be run in a certain way.  – Michael, Manager At Pit Stop Community Cafe 

Amongst the throngs of people at PSCC, notably, there are elderly with salt and pepper hair carrying a walking stick or tongkat, a father with two sons and even expatriates. 

There are familiar faces, recognised by the frequent volunteers and the core team – but they don’t dwell or communicate with individuals as much. 

We try to not get too attached to any of the individuals. It could breed favouritism. We need to treat all equally and feed all equally. – Michael, Manager at PSCC

Within 15 minutes, all the food packets were distributed. Late-comers would flock, but all we could offer were leftover honeydew milk. They would take the beverage served in paper cups and leave the area.

Source: Wiki Impact Team Archive

The 15-minute buzz died down, and the shutters rolled to a close. 

On good days, it would take 12 minutes for the food packets to be fully distributed. – Lorna Ling, a regular volunteer 

As we parted ways from Lorna and Michael, heading to the nearby LRT station, the way we looked at the homeless community and the work of soup kitchens were no longer the same. 

Even though we may never know why they chose to remain homeless – it is enough that we understand and treat them with kindness. Most are trying to survive on the streets; Pit Stop have relied on the Pay Forward meals system to continue their work on the ground. 

What people are doing is they are paying for other people to eat. And then, of course, there are various households and communities that get in touch with us. Joycelyn Lee, Pit Stop Community co-founder[2]

With the number of soup kitchens serving the homeless community, take your time to contribute and work together with the existing organisations on the ground.  Alternatively, consider sponsoring a meal for the homeless community through Pit Stop Community Cafe. 

Explore our sources:

  1. N. S. Hamdan, S. S. Herman. (2020). Homeless in Kuala Lumpur: A Way Out of The Streets. Malaysian Architectural Journal. Link. 
  2. M.Chalil. (2020). KL’s Pit Stop Community Cafe thanks selfless volunteers in touching message (VIDEO). Malay Mail. Link
  3. Pit Stop Community Cafe. Our Impact. Link
  4. E.Yap. (2021). Pit Stop Community Café continues to serve urban poor and frontliners despite extended lockdown. Options The Edge. Link

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