Gary feels most at home with the homeless

Humanitarian Dr Gary Liew is humbled to take the reins as the new director of the Archdiocesan Office for Human Development (AOHD) effective May 1, 2023.

May 05, 2023

Gary in Kenya carrying out missionary work.

By Gwen Manickam
Humanitarian Dr Gary Liew is humbled to take the reins as the new director of the Archdiocesan Office for Human Development (AOHD) effective May 1, 2023.

The Klang Valley native’s love and compassion for the less fortunate, marginalised, and those living on the peripheries of society took root 24 years ago, at the tender age of 11. Gary used to accompany his mum, Christabel Rozario when she helped cook for the homeless every Monday at Carl’s Kitchen – a soup kitchen started under AOHD by the late Carl D’Cunha at the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist.

“Uncle Carl taught me to see the homeless as friends, as my equals,” and that still holds strong with Gary, a former filmmaker, who graduated from the Hollywood Film Academy in California.

Seventeen and gung-hoe to change in the world, Gary was ready to pack his bags and head to Kenya for missionary work because he believed starving children in Africa was the place to make a difference. However, his father, Don Liew, pulled the brakes and pinned his eager wings until he turned 21.

When Gary finally landed in Kenya, he stayed for three months and worked with Melaka-born Fr Francis Teo, a member of the Mission Community of St Paul the Apostle, and the then-Vicar General of the Diocese of Lodwar, Kenya.

“I was discerning my vocation and thought that was where I was meant to be. Little did I understand it was so much more than I imagined and what I read on paper.

“I learnt that as much as we want to change the community and their way of life, we must cater to their basic needs first. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long journey and takes many, many years to see a difference.

Street Feeders of KL
“Only when I came back did I realise I needed to do something in my own backyard.”

One evening, while waiting by a lok-lok (hotpot) truck to pick up his then-girlfriend from a nightclub, the 22-year-old spotted a group of homeless people across the street carrying de-constructed cardboard boxes. He followed them through the alleyways and, for the first time, saw where they stayed at night and how they used the cardboard as makeshift beds and shelter. It left a profound impression on him.

Gary remembered that although he’d met and mingled with the homeless when they’d come to Carl’s Kitchen, he’d never seen where they lived. Gary immediately felt the need to do something but didn’t know what or where to begin.

His knee-jerk reaction was to feed them. So once a week, he used to buy 100 packets of Nasi Lemak Bumbung with fried chicken and take it to those living on the streets. He also roped in friends to help distribute the food packets.

Although he was working in the film industry, with an office next to the Petronas Twin Towers, and rubbing shoulders with the who’s-who of KL, Gary felt something missing. A storyteller by nature, he “felt most at home” when he walked among ‘nobodies’ on the streets. That led to the birth of his non-profit, Street Feeders of KL in November 2011.

“For the first four years, my parents and I footed the bills for food and other projects we ran for the homeless, including mobile clinics, portable showers, and job placements.” Street Feeders eventually became self-sufficient and they raised funds by selling merchandise and the generosity of Malaysians.

“Back then it was a lot of trial and error for me. There was no handbook. Today I understand the psychology of homelessness a lot better.” Street Feeders is in 10 cities around the world, including India, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ireland, and Korea.

Treat them with love, dignity and respect
Gary shared that there are different needs for someone homeless for a few weeks compared to someone homeless for several years. The person who has lived on the streets for a few weeks may be more inclined and motivated to get back on his or her feet while the other may be more cynical and jaded after spending years on the streets.

“In essence, we treat them with love, dignity, and respect. Every community has slightly different needs and governmental structures, so in a city, we either place someone who has been trained here or we go in and start something up with the locals.

“After heading the non-profit for 10 years, I stepped down. Now, I consult nonprofits and social enterprises globally on how to set up and run their organisations,” said the 35-year-old, who has a Ph.D. in Humanitarianism and lectures part-time at the Perdana University, an affiliate of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

The longest relationship Gary had with a homeless person lasted 22 years. The man had lived on the streets for more than 20 years when Gary met him. When he offered to get the ‘uncle’ a job and shelter, the ‘uncle’ said all he wanted from Gray was a sincere friendship.

“I learnt to accept it was not what I wanted for him but what his needs were.” The ‘uncle’ who always claimed he had no family, agreed to move to a place to call home 14 months before he passed on. Upon his demise, Gary learnt that his family had been looking for him for over 40 years, and his elder brother lived minutes from the place he’d moved into.

People often ask me, “Money must be your greatest challenge. It is my only challenge but I don’t let it be my challenge. I believe in the higher power that, up to this point, has somehow provided at the last minute.”

Plans for AOHD
“Uncle Carl used to remind me that they are not poor of money, but most of all, they are poor of love, companionship, and people who care for their well-being.” So, one of Gary’s plans as the new director of AOHD is to try and set up a place that can cater to the mental, psychiatric, and emotional wellbeing of his street friends.

While easing his way into his new seat, Gary recently found an AOHD newsletter from 17 years ago in which he’d written a short article that ended with, “I can see greater involvement of youth in the programmes of AOHD soon,” and that’s another area he will focus on – getting more youth involved in AOHD and the eight ministries under its helm.

Also, on his agenda is to revive the Women’s Desk ministry.

Gary doesn’t plan to restart a soup kitchen as he believes there are several successful ones around already. “I would like to take the ministry back to its glory days, there is so much to do within my tenure.”

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