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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 51, December 11, 2010

Comprehensive Plan Needed for Helping the Homeless

Sunday 12 December 2010, by Bharat Dogra

No matter how tired we are in the course of a difficult day’s work, there is always the reassuring feeling that at the end of the hard work we’ll go back to sleep in the comfort of our home. But there are millions of people in our cities who simply do not have a home. The homeless of our cities suffer the most; yet they are the most neglected. No matter how adverse the weather conditions, they’ve to generally spend their nights on the footpath, near the railway station or bus stop or elsewhere under the open sky. They do not have even two yards of space to keep their clothes or minimal essential belongings, or a place to have a bath and clean up. Even a small humble hut is not accessible to them in the middle of the skyscrapers of our metro cities. Whether it is dense fog or the monsoons torrents, they bear it straight on their body.

The homeless people are the most vulnerable group in cold wave conditions. However, it is not correct to say that it is only extremely cold weather which causes extreme hardship to the homeless people. The rainy season is equally harsh to footpath dwellers.

So far the scheme for night shelters has made very tardy progress reaching less than 10 per cent of the homeless people in the country. In fact at present even reliable estimates of homeless people in different cities do not exist on the basis of which planning of night shelters can proceed. As census estimates have not been able to count homeless people (without any address) properly, special efforts need to be made to prepare more accurate estimates of homeless people. AAA found 52,765 homeless on streets of Delhi during its first headcount in year 2000. Taking projections from that headcount, AAA estimates that there must be around 1,50,000 such homeless in Delhi alone.

Bishnu N. Mohapatra writes in his paper on the Pavement Dwellers of Mumbai: “It has always been difficult to obtain reliable data concerning pavement dwellers.... Although living on the pavements of the city, they remained invisible and ignored. Historically no other group in the city suffers as much from the problem of invisibility as the pavement dwellers.”

Following the Supreme Court’s judgement (1985) on Bombay evictions, within a month a voluntary organisation, SPARC, conducted a survey covering 6000 households (27,000 individuals) within the ‘E’ ward of this city. This survey helped to shatter the myth of pavement dwellers being a transient population who can always go back to their villages following evictions. The survey showed that nearly 13 per cent of the heads of pavement dweller households were born in Bombay and around 60 per cent of the population migrated to the city over a decade ago. Most of them walked to their workplace (hence did not burden the transport system) and the majority of them worked at below minimum wage rates (hence contributed to providing cheap services and goods in the city).

The planning for the homeless in any city should also include another category which may be called ‘precariously housed people’, or ‘people on the verge of homelessness’. For example, some jhuggis are too small to house entire families and some members of the family are in effect homeless although they’ve the jhuggi as an address. Some re-located families live so far from their place of employment that the main wage-earner may prefer not to go back to home each day. Some people live in old damaged houses in danger of collapsing.

Some workers avoid being homeless only if they tolerate terrible working conditions and denial of minimum legal wages—it is only then that they are allowed to spend their night in their place of employment. Some homeless persons are kept in beggars’ homes, orphanages and women’s care homes against their wishes and they would be homeless if they succeed in coming out.

An important category of the precariously housed people include those whose houses or jhuggis are likely to be demolished in the near future without alternative resettlement being promised. In almost all demolitions at least some families are left out of the resettlement effort (in some cases no resettlement is even promised or planned). Estimates of precariously housed people should also be considered while planning for homeless people.

It is important to keep track of factors that may be leading to a significant increase in homelessness. An understanding of such factors relating to trends in economy and in urban planning and policies is necessary for efforts to mobilse and help homeless people.

IN cities like Delhi there have been several factors at work which are likely to result in increasing homelessness. Shifting or closure of industries, relocation of slum-dwellers far away from the place of employment, sealing operations to curb commercial activities in residential areas, ban on cycle rickshaws on main roads.

The loss of livelihoods is also supported by existing official data. The number of unemployed persons went up from 196 thousand in 1992 to 569 thousand in 1999-2000, an increase of 373 thousand in just seven years. As a percentage of workforce, unemployment rose from 5.6 per cent to 12.7 per cent in a span of just seven to eight years.

But this is actually an underestimate as these statistics fail to bring in those persons who have suffered an erosion of livelihood and income opportunities even though they are still employed. For example, following the closure of an industry a worker becomes a vendor or a rickshaw-puller. He may be still employed, but his income and benefits have decreased. At a recent public hearing of re-located slum dwellers, many speakers complained bitterly that their net income has declined to less than half as they’ve to spend a lot of time and money in travelling to places of employment.

A large number of deaths are reported almost every year in the cold wave sweeps of North India. One important reason for these deaths is that the number of homeless people in India is quite high and there is a glaring shortage of night shelters for both the local homeless people and travellers who have come to the city for a short while. India badly needs a cooperative effort of the government and civil society to meet the basic needs of homeless people, particularly to provide them permanent and well-equipped night shelters.

A time-bound programme of about five years should be prepared to provide access to shelters to all homeless persons. To overcome financial constraints in speeding up this work, the government can consider, at least on a temporary basis, the night-time use of existing government owned buildings for providing shelter to homeless people. Those government owned buildings which can be used as night-time shelters can be carefully identified using certain criteria. Tents can be also be provided as a temporary shelter, particularly during winter, till such time that permanent shelters are not created.

Some shelters which can function during day as well as night are also needed. These will be particularly useful for homeless workers who are employed in night shifts and so badly need rest during day time. The usefulness of night shelters will be increased if canteens which serve cheap but nutritious food on a no-profit, no-loss basis can be added to them. Safety aspects should get careful attention in all shelters.

Homeless people do not have an address and they face difficulty in getting treatment at government hospitals. Therefore visits by doctors to night shelters will be very useful for them. These doctors can give them papers recommen-ding further treatment in government hospitals which should be honoured in government hospitals.

The distribution of sweaters and blankets among the homeless and poor is a good first step; it is the most obvious way of saying we care but clearly something more is also needed. After all, we do not even know whether the child to whom we give a blanket will be able to retain it or whether it will be snatched away from him. The homeless badly need more secure conditions of shelter in which they can face weather extremes, but as they live on the margins of society they are at present not in a strong position to assert their right to shelter. So other citizens should help them to secure their shelter rights. Apart from exerting pressure on the government for providing shelter to homeless people, citizens can also help to provide some badly needed services.

Most homeless people face severe problems in meeting the most basic, taken-for-granted needs such as water and sanitation. These problems can be acute for women. Payments for public toilets and bathing places such as sulabh shauchalyas are not always affordable for the poor, particularly if they are overcharged.

Some homeless people, particularly those who are chronically ill, or disabled, too old or otherwise unable to work frequently cannot afford to pay for their food. Some homeless people who do not or cannot buy readymade food also face problems in cooking food.

Several homeless people face problems of liquor and drug addiction and substance abuse. Another way of stating this situation can be that these problems drive several persons towards a state of homelessness. This is a reality but this should not be exaggerated to deflect attention from the many unjust and distorted policies that are responsible above all for homelessness (as well as a state of widespread hopelessness).

Serious as all these problems are, many homeless persons when asked about their problems emphasise beatings, extortions and evictions at the hands of policemen as their biggest problem. Due to the existence of highly unjust laws like the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act or BPBA 1959 (which has also been extended to Delhi), homeless people in particular have become very vulnerable to being taken suddenly to beggars’ homes and confined there for a long time.
In addition there is the threat posed by gangsters and bullies on the street. It is well known that gangs engaged in trafficking are on the lookout for procuring women and children from the streets.

Keeping in view the many-sided problems and threats faced by homeless people, a comprehensive, time-bound, national-level plan for the homeless should be drawn up which on the one hand meets the basic needs of the homeless and on the other hand strengthens them as a community to protect themselves and their rights.

The author is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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