Is just a roof enough?

She doesn’t mind staying on the streets. For the past 20 years, the streets of Hanuman Mandir have been her only refuge. “At least I haven’t died. I manage to get food from the mandir or pick up leftovers from the street,” says Vimla, 72.

Eating stale rice out of polythene, she drains a bottle of water into it. “This will keep me going till tomorrow.”    

Vimla’s story is neither uncommon nor untold. Currently, the capital has over 10,000 homeless women and only seven shelter homes specifically for them, according to data collected by Centre for Holistic Development, an NGO. The homeless have accepted the “state of homelessness” as a way of life.

While the shelter homes might seem like temporary relief for some, the lack of basic amenities at these homes narrate the sorry tales of thousands of such women. “There is a big gap between the number of homeless women and that of shelter homes. The other major problem is most of these shelter homes are rudimentary in nature,” says Paramjeet Kaur, director of Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, an NGO.

Currently, Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) runs five shelter homes exclusively for women in Jama Masjid, Lodhi Road, Bangla Sahib and Karol Bagh. While the shelter home at Karol Bagh is a permanent building, the rest are porta cabins. The Women and Child Development department runs two homes for pregnant and lactating women in Sarai Rohilla and Jahangirpuri.

“We have repeatedly demanded basic amenities like almirah, fridge and air cooler. But the government has turned a deaf ear. The makeshift roof is not even strong enough to stand the monsoon,” says Zubeida. She has six children who are growing up in different parts of the city as she cannot support them.

Besides the little pension she receives as a disabled person, Zubeida relies on begging at Sai Mandir in Lodhi Road. “But it looks like Modi sarkar doesn’t want beggars on the streets. The alms are declining at the temple.”

The most significant problem at the porta cabins for the homeless women is the lack of an inbuilt toilet. “The nearby toilet is closed latest by 9 pm. We have repeatedly told the caretaker not to lock it but he misbehaves with us. We walk for over a kilometre if we need to use a loo at night. It is needless to say that any woman would be scared to walk that distance in the middle of the night,” says Satya Devi, 60. 

She has been staying at the Lodhi Road porta cabin for over three years now.  The shelter accommodates 20-25 people on an average though DUSIB claims it has the capacity for 50.

“I have found work nearby to stay at this shelter home. I think a toilet should be built so that women here can lead a slightly more dignified life,” says Devi.   

While some women have decided to get “aggressive” and fight with the caretaker to not pay for using the toilet, others have given in. “I end up paying Rs 5 for bath almost every day and Rs 2 for using the toilet,” says Ayesha Bibi, 50.

“There have been several appeals to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to keep the toilets open 24x7. But the situation hasn’t changed still. There is also a lack of drinking water and kitchen facilities at these porta cabins,” says Bipin Rai, manager, ActionAid campaign.

 Most inhabitants of the shelter home were evicted from their jhuggis near Jawaharlal Nehru stadium during the Commonwealth Games. “It is unfair that people who helped make the capital what it is today are not entitled to their basic rights,” says Sunil Kumar Aledia of the Centre for Holistic Development. 

While a few have ration cards, the elderly women have not been receiving their pensions. They have appealed to the Lieutanant Governor but no action has been taken so far. 

With no inbuilt kitchen facility,  women have to rely on outside food. Some occupants who work outside bring food back for one or two friends. “I used to bring two chappatis for my friend here from the place I work. But I stopped after others started fighting over this,” said Bimlaji, who works as a help at an NGO office.    

The situation is slightly different at the shelter homes for pregnant and lactating women with more facilities. However, administrators often find it difficult to discipline the women there. 

“Women feel claustrophobic leading a disciplined life during pregnancy when they are brought from places like the streets of Hanuman Mandir. The ambience is very different. They resent the diet food and having to do everything on time.

It is also difficult to counsel them to stay back after delivery in the best interest of the infant,” says a former administrator of the home at Sarai Rohilla, which can house 14 women. The shelter home at Jahangirpuri can accommodate around 10.

While there are attempts to give vocational training to these women, many women decline feeling it is best to go back to begging. It is difficult to bring the women into mainstream with only few options of sustainable income, like working at factories to put buttons on jeans or making candles.  

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