When pavement is your home

Shambhu, a rickshaw puller, sleeps on a pavement in Kashmere Gate as he has no place to call his own home.

Like him, there are hundreds of homeless in the city who sleep in the open, braving extreme heat and cold. Living on the streets makes the homeless extremely vulnerable to road accidents, as it  happened in thrice during the past week.

Late last Sunday, one man was killed and 12 others injured near Nigambodh Ghat in Kashmere Gate area when a drunk driver ran over them while taking a sharp turn. And in the two other late-night mishaps, cars rammed into rickshaws pullers on the roadside.

But many more succumb to extreme weather conditions.

Between April and early June, 551 unidentified bodies have been found across the capital. A bulk of these people succumbed to the blistering heat wave, according to an NGO Centre for Holistic Development.

The NGOs claim most of these bodies are of the homeless, but police are sceptical. “It is difficult to confirm the identity of all the unidentified bodies. Only 50 per cent of them can be identified, of which only 10 to 20 per cent bodies are of the homeless,” says a senior police officer. “The rest of the bodies are of accident victims and suicide cases.”

The story is no different in winter when dozens of homeless deaths are reported.Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board or DUSIB, a Delhi government body, maintains 185 shelter homes. It gives NGOs the charge to run them.

But many homeless prefer living at bus stands, railway platforms or in subways rather than going to these shelter homes.

Too far

Dinesh, a coolie at Old Delhi railway station, says he doesn’t go to the night shelters.“I work till late at the station and go to work early the next morning. Night shelters are located quite far off from here so I prefer to sleep on the footpaths nearby,” says Dinesh.  

In the backdrop of the recent accidents involving the homeless and their rising death toll owing to harsh weather conditions, DUSIB director Kamal Malhotra points out that authorities have warned the homeless against sleeping on the pavements or on the roads.

But people like Satender still choose to sleep in the open as they find the living conditions at night shelters abysmal.

“It is quite hot and humid this time of the year so I like to sleep in the open. There is no proper arrangement for ventilation in porta cabins which makes me feel suffocated,” says Satender.

Besides, many shelters don't offer drinking and sanitation facilities. Recently, the Comptroller and Audiotr General (CAG) also pulled up the DUSIB over poor maintenance of shelter homes.

On the basis of a survey, the CAG report had said: “Functional condition of night shelters was not up to mark. Blankets were in unhygienic condition; sanitation condition in all 58 shelters was also unhygienic and lighting arrangement was not made in many night shelters. Temporary night shelters were functioning in fabric tents not suitable for winter season.”

Many migrant labourers who come to the city with their families don’t want to spend the night at shelter homes either.

Om Parkash, a labourer, says, “I can’t live there with my wife and children as the surroundings are bad. Drug addicts and criminals often come there. I don’t find the place safe.”

Even the five night shelters for women offer little relief. Lack of proper sanitation facilities and safety discourage homeless women from going there.

“It is a den of sexual offenders, alcoholics and drug addicts. I can’t think about taking asylum there with my children. A few months ago, a friend had gone to stay there. In the morning she realised her purse was missing,” says Rabia, 39, who works as a maid.  

Fight over blankets

There have been cases where the homeless fight over blankets during winter. “Drug addicts and alcoholics at times steal blankets or other valuable items to buy drugs or liquor,” says a DUSIB official.

Rabia suggests porta cabins should provide locker facilities to keep luggage and other belongings safe. 

“To encourage more homeless women and families to stay at shelters, staff members need to keep an eye on unruly elements,” she says.

Several issues need to be addressed. First, there is no clarity over the population of the homeless in the city. On its basis, the authorities can decide how many shelter homes are actually required to accommodate each and every homeless. 

A survey conducted by the DUSIB earlier this year pegged the number of the homeless at 16,760, which drew flak from the NGOs. 

“It was a rapid survey and it is totally unacceptable,” says Sunil Kumar Aledia, member of Centre for Holistic Development (CHD). NGOs argue that DUSIB numbers are far too less. According to CHD, there are 1.8 lakh homeless in the city. “We estimate that one per cent of the total population of any city is homeless,” it says.

Many homeless are forced to stay in the open owing to non-availability of enough shelters in the area. For instance, there are very few shelters in Kashmere Gate area – the scene of  the Sunday night car crash – but over 3,500 homeless live there. The  DUSIB washes its hands of the responsibility of providing them shelter.

“We don’t have space to set up porta cabins in Kashmere Gate. We have been asking people not to sleep on the pavements,” says Malhotra. The DUSIB also puts the blame on multiplicity of agencies. Malhotra says inordinate delays in obtaining a go-ahead from various departments to set up more temporary shelters affects the rehabilitation process.

 “Getting clearance from the Delhi Development Agency takes a lot of time. We have written to almost all the agencies,” he says. “We have also written to the Transport Department to give us some areas near the depot which are lying vacant.”

Being a low-lying area no permanent shelter can be built in Kashmere Gate, DUSIB says. “People have to be evacuated if the water level rises, like it happened in 2012,” an  officials says.

“The government needs to adopt a compassionate approach while dealing with the issue of homeless and to understand their plight,” says Indu Prakash Singh, executive committee member of the NGO, Shahri Adhikar Manch: Begharon Ke Saath.

“There is a long way to go in terms of improving infrastructure facilities at shelters to increase the occupancy.”  This will  prevent deaths due to road accidents or during harsh weather conditions, he says.

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