Sheltering the homeless

Sheltering the homeless


“We prefer to call the urban homeless, ‘CityMakers’. Everyone must recognise their contribution to life in urban areas and let them live like other people,” remarks Rajani S, Officer, Programmes at the Indo Global Social Service Society’s (IGSSS) Bangalore centre.

A 50-year-old NGO that supports sustainable livelihoods, youth development and disaster risk reduction in 21 Indian states, IGSSS is assisting homeless people in large towns and cities and campaigning for their rights since 2008.

Apart from focussing attention on these invisible persons, IGSSS monitors government-run urban homeless shelters, distributes blankets and conducts community healthcare programmes for CityMakers in New Delhi and Bangalore.

The Supreme Court, in its order dated January 27, 2010, notified that one shelter for homeless persons must be created for every one lakh population. However, the government and urban residents ignore people who make their homes on footpaths, underbridges and flyovers, in parks, bus and railway stations, and other public places.

These “pavement dwellers” (as they are sometimes termed) are either locals or migrants. For instance, construction workers on Bangalore and Mysore streets often come from northern Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. 

Research on homelessness
“Sometimes, even domestic workers and pourakarmikas have no roof over their heads as they cannot afford housing near their place of employment. Rag pickers and hamaalis (head load bearers) frequently survive under tin or tarpaulin sheets. But government agencies including the police evict them without prior notice and rarely provide them alternate accommodation.

Or, such housing is distant from their work sites. Therefore, the labourers spend on food and local conveyance from their meagre earnings. Additionally, they cannot obtain basic entitlements like ration card and voter identity as they lack a valid address.”

To bring to the notice of the State government the challenges of the urban homeless, civic bodies in Bangalore and the general public, IGSSS and 29 other Bangalore-based NGOs carried out a research titled ‘Invisible CityMakers’ in March 2010.

During the study, 191 investigators met with 2,000 persons without a proper home and took a headcount of many more across the 198 BBMP wards. The results showed that Bangalore has at least 18,000 homeless people.

They include Mariamma, a 60-year-old widow in Yeshwantpur, Nagendra in Rehmat Nagar, Afzal in K R Market, etc. Mariamma’s children abandoned her after her husband died. She sells glass and metal collected from garbage dumps to scrap dealers getting below Rs 100 daily. As a small farmer in Malavalli, Nagendra borrowed money from private lenders as nationalised banks refused him credit because of poor collateral.

Unable to repay his loans due to reduced returns, he fled to Bangalore thinking he would find a good job. Unsuccessful, he started selling peanuts on a small push cart. Afzal and his wife Salma came to Bangalore for the latter’s medical treatment as suggested by a relative working here as a security guard. They are unable to return home (in northern Bihar) as she has not recovered fully and they don’t have  funds for the long journey.  
“All these people sleep in empty sites, playgrounds or along the road with minimal protection from the weather. They usually consume unhygienic and unhealthy food and water. CityMakers spend a minimum of Rs 20 every day for use of public toilets. Some of these facilities are dirty and unsafe. Sometimes, these people are too ill or tired to work because of which they miss out on earning on those days.

Everyone knows that government hospitals and clinics are insufficient, badly maintained and do not provide the mandatory free and quality healthcare. CityMakers cannot access private medical assistance due to high costs. The police and local goons who extract money from them, threaten, abuse and exploit them.

Women and girls are susceptible to sexual violence. Further, they all fear eviction under the Karnataka Prohibition of Beggary Act, 1975 or being forced into a government mental health or similar institution. Also, families may be separated,” Rajani says.
National caravan
The Supreme Court also mandates that in all towns/cities with a population of over five lakh, the local government must provide shelters for the homeless. Nine towns in Karnataka are in this category, but only Mysore and Bellary have a shelter each, opened recently. Bangalore was supposed to provide homeless persons’ shelters by July 2011 but is yet to even finalise the location.

The government cites security and hygiene concerns expressed by residents of various neighbourhoods. Therefore, the spot identified by NGOs is unacceptable to them. Further, IGSSS learnt through RTI applications that the government assumed that only 2,500 homeless persons are in Bangalore, after its own investigation.

Consequent to the above and apathy towards the harsh realities of the urban homeless across the country, IGSSS held a National CityMakers’ Caravan between August 2010 and January 2011.

Travelling through 22 Indian states, it highlighted the problems of the urban homeless, through street plays, public meetings and memorandums to government officials. The caravan made NGOs in several areas understand CityMakers’ issues and begin activities to prioritise them. Shelters were opened in Delhi, Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam et al. 

Following the research and the caravan, IGSSS launched a Civil Society Forum to continue pressurising the government to create accessible and convenient shelters for the urban homeless. The forum also ensures that the shelters have restrooms, mattresses and blankets, operate regularly and are clean and spacious.

Rajani added, “These are small steps towards attaining our primary objectives. For it, we need media's support and sensitivity of citizens who must accept in their midst the people whose services they use regularly.”     

(While some names, occupations and locations were changed to protect identity, the cases are factual.)

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