Meet Gary Liew, The Young Malaysian Who Spends His Days Helping The Homeless In KL

".. they are not poor of money, but most of all they are poor of love, companionship, and people who truly care for their well-being."

Cover image via Amirul Syafiq/The Sun Daily/Street Feeders

A quick tour of Kuala Lumpur's golden triangle will have most assuming that we're doing pretty great - fancy cars, tall glassy buildings, and people carting shopping bags with luxury brands stamped all over them.

However, if you look closely, you'll realise that two versions of the city coexist - luxury and poverty.

One of the most popular malls in country, Pavilion, is located just a stone's throw away from the many spots the city's homeless call home.

Image via Personal Shopper Kuala Lumpur

It is along the same streets where tourists and locals walk and in and out of glamorous shopping malls, that the city's homeless live at.

If this is news for you, try taking a post-midnight stroll along Jalan Pudu or the Bukit Bintang area. These areas are synonymous with having a good time for most people - cafes, bars, and nightclubs line the streets - buzzing with energy and excitement. But it is usually after 4am that you'll see the harsh reality that dwells within the grandeur that is Kuala Lumpur.

With no roof over their head, most homeless people turn deconstructed cardboard boxes into mattresses and sleep on cold, hard floors by the streets. Parks and sidewalks are their homes for the night. Before I go any further, know that one of the biggest myths about the homeless is that they're all lazy and jobless.

The truth is that, most of them do have day jobs, it's just that they don't make enough to rent or buy houses. In fact, if you speak to them, you'll realise that a lot of them are educated and used to lead completely normal lives. Difficult circumstances have left them sleeping on the street. So, please read the rest of the story with an open mind and compassion.

A homeless man sleeping near Pudu Sentral.

Image via Bernama via The Sun Daily

For these people living in deep pockets of poverty, the streets are their homes and soup kitchens are basically their saving grace

Not only do the soup kitchens provide warm meals, but most of them also help out the homeless community by giving them basic necessities like clothing, health services, and non-perishable food items.

One such establishment in town is Street Feeders of KL. We recently spoke to Gary Liew, who started the NGO with a group of friends in late 2011.

It all began about 18 years ago when Liew was just 11 years old.

Gary Liew

Image via Amirul Syafiq/The Sun Daily

Liew recalled how he used to help out at a soup kitchen in Bukit Nanas with his mother as a child. She used to cook lunch there from Mondays to Fridays every week. Her kindness and willingness to help out the needy taught him to share whatever he had and to never compromise on the quality of the food, just because they are less fortunate.

It was during his time there that he met Carl D'Cunha, or fondly known as Uncle Carl, who established the soup kitchen at St John's Cathedral in KL.

"It was people like Uncle Carl and my mum who inspired the foundation of which I've since built from. He also taught me the meaning of being a friend to the homeless.

"He would often remind me that they are not poor of money, but most of all they are poor of love, companionship, and people who truly care for their well-being," explained Liew

Image via Street Feeders

Sadly, Uncle Carl passed away in early 2013 after battling cancer. In September 2013, the soup kitchen was officially named Carl's Kitchen as a tribute to the man who dedicated his life to serving the needy for decades.

For Liew, running a soup kitchen is more than just feeding the less fortunate.

It was more about forming a lasting connection and helping them get back on their feet, if possible.

Image via Street Feeders

"I started by being their friend, showing them magic tricks to break the ice, and striking up a conversation - simply because they were rich with life stories and lessons to learn from.

"I guess you can say I didn't pity them. Instead, I saw them as equals who just did not have as much as the others, kind of like my friends in general - some can afford certain things while others will be very careful with how they spend their money," said Liew.

So, when he started Street Feeders of KL with a group of like-minded friends, he brought this vision along and made it an important part of the NGO. It is kindness that drives them to help people who live on the streets and struggle financially.

Using the act of distributing food supplies as a bridge to reach out and better understand the plight of the homeless, Street Feeders of KL focuses on helping them re-integrate into the society through counselling and potential job opportunities

"We aim to show our homeless friends some respect, dignity, and to basically offer them hope. Our ultimate goal is to assist our homeless friends to break out of the poverty or homelessness cycle," read the NGO's about section.

Liew himself did not have much growing up and his parents, too, came from humble beginnings. So, to him, the idea of poverty is subjective. His life and the values he was raised with propelled him to go on a three-month missionary trip to Kenya as he wanted to make a difference in the world.

"At 21, I honestly thought in order to make a difference in the world, I'll have to go halfway across the world to 'save' starving children in Africa, as that was always the notion of "making a difference in the world", especially growing up with the influence of television shows."

It was only after he came back home that he understood "saving the world" can be done from anywhere.

"Walking the streets at night with my girlfriend reminded me of the street friends I made during growing up. They lived very different lives at night. I saw where they slept and said to myself it starts here, it starts at home in my own backyard."

Fast forward six years later, Street Feeders is now in eight cities - five of which are in Malaysia

The growing movement is feeding the needy in Petaling Jaya, Melaka, Penang, Seremban, India, South Korea, and Ireland. They've feed thousands of people over the years, reaching out to more than 500 people on nights they open up the soup kitchen.

When asked on what his hopes and dreams are for Street Feeders, here's what Liew said:

"My end goal was to always be obsolete as I hope to end homelessness in my city. The every day goal, on the other hand, is to inspire people to be their own heroes, to do something today for the people around them. It could be as simple as smiling at a stranger, getting to know the uncle who makes our favourite coffee, or the name of the guards who protect our homes."

In a nutshell, Liew wants to get more young people to be passionate about doing their part to make the world a better place.

Over the years, the young man has met a lot of extraordinary human beings, but he mentioned two people in particular who have inspired him in so many ways

"One is Uncle Amran, my oldest street friend whom I've known for almost 18 years. He is someone who has been homeless for 40 years and has taught me that no matter what I think is best for someone, sometimes we have to truly listen to what their hearts want rather than what we can provide.

"As much as we tried to convince him that someone in his golden age should have a shelter, I am always reminded that it has always been his choice and I can only respect his wishes. All he wants from me is my friendship, something he says money can never buy.

"The second is Aunty Mumtaj, who has always wanted a home, but age caught up with her and unfortunately, we didn't get to help her in time before she passed. That served as a bitter reminder that the only factor working against me is time!" said Liew.

Above all, his mother has been his biggest inspiration in life. Liew said that he would always ask himself what she would do if she was in his shoes and faced with the same daily struggles and challenges.

Liew's lasting passion for helping others is truly commendable and goes to show that at the end of the day, it is kindness and love that have the power to change the world

He says that the definition of a good human being is subjective, but ultimately, he thinks that the greatest thing we can do is to love our families.

".. family is the common thread between all homeless universally. They are where they are because of family, disagreements, misunderstandings, or simply because there was no love in their immediate circle. In order to push the human race forward, we have to take a look at ourselves and start at home.

"Be your own heroes, be that change you want to see in this world!"

Liew is one of the nominees for "Malaysia's Top 10 Most Empowering Young Community Champion Award 2017", which seeks to acknowledge the contributions of young Malaysians who have empowered the underprivileged community by improving their situation through various means.

The award is part of the humanitarian week themed 'Empowering Lives Through Humanitarian Initiatives' organised by UCSI University's U-Schos.

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