Who cares for city's homeless?

For the past couple of weeks, 17-year-old Priyanka has been braving the chill and fending off lechers on the streets around Connaught Place, the heart of the national capital. The teenager was not a given a place to stay at shelter homes in the vicinity as she is unmarried. “Caretakers say they will only allow me to enter their shelter homes if I get married,” the daily-wage labourer says.

So nowadays, she is taking refuge in front of Hanuman Mandir at Connaught Place. “Last week while crossing the road I was hit by a car. No one came to my rescue,” Priyanka says while walking with a limp.

“I was in so much pain as I had broken my leg but nobody cared to call an ambulance. Hours later a medical van came and took me to the nearest government hospital. They put a cast on my leg.” Her smile doesn't fade even while she narrates the ordeal.

The city government-run Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), which looks after night shelters for the homeless, appears immune to such stories. And its tall promises have fallen flat.

“We thought of supplying warm water at night shelters this winter season, but it seems a distant dream now. At the moment we are just trying to provide basic facilities to the homeless population,” says Kamal Malhotra, DUSIB Director (Night Shelters).

Inadequate water supply and electricity, lack of space and delayed distribution of blankets are among the shortcomings highlighting the sorry state of affairs at night shelters.

The destitute are left with no choice but to bear the biting cold in the open. “We want to work and earn our living. We don’t want pension or something from the government. We want to live our lives with our heads held high,” says Shankar Lal, a handicapped man who spends the nights in the open in India Gate area.

A few days back, Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung directed Delhi Jal Board to ensure that 800 litres of water is supplied on a daily basis to all night shelters.

And the DUSIB officials claim they are working round the clock to ensure that the homeless population gets better facilities at the shelters. There are  222 shelter homes across Delhi – 92 permanent shelter homes, 109 porta cabins and 21 temporary tent shelters. The tent shelters have been put up as per a Delhi High Court directive.

“We have already started providing rusk and tea to homeless persons every morning at all shelters across the city,” says Malhotra.

Lax approach
NGOs working for the homeless accuse the authorities of taking a lackadaisical approach as they fail to make proper arrangements at the shelters before the arrival of winter.

“We repeatedly warned DUSIB about the winter but the officials were not ready to wake up from their slumber. Now when the death toll owing to the harsh weather conditions is increasing, there is a lot of hue and cry,” says Indu Prakash Singh, national convenor of the National Forum for Housing Rights.

“It just shows that these agencies are slack and do not want to do their bit,” adds Singh, who has been representing the homeless in an ongoing case in the Delhi High Court.

About a week back, the LG reviewed the condition of the night shelters at a meeting and directed the city government to allocate an additional Rs 5 crore to the DUSIB.

Two blankets per person will be made available by the DUSIB at all shelter homes, his office declared. The government said it will also start night shelters for families. The LG also directed deputy commissioners to carry out inspections of shelters in their districts every night. Even secretary-level officials have been instructed to conduct visits there, ahead of another review by the LG soon.

Delhi Police officials informed at the meeting that they helped move around 250 people to night shelter in the Trans-Yamuna area as these homes were running below capacity.

The NGOs ask why these measures were not taken up earlier, before  the onset of winter. “Now when the toll has crossed the 700 mark, the authorities have suddenly sprung into action.

The example is in front of you. Now the LG is making rounds of night shelters. Why didn’t he pull up the officials earlier? So many lives could have been saved,” says Singh. “The DUSIB should have done better and acted on time if it really cares about this section of the population.”

Homeless count
According to the NGOs, there are nearly 1.5 lakh destitute people in the city. But the DUSIB survey conducted this year only managed to find 16,760.

The authenticity of the survey can be judged by the homeless figures of 2011 Census, which puts the destitute population at 46,724. And a 2014 handbook by Commissioners of Supreme Court, “Shelters for the Urban Homeless”, estimates that at least one per cent of population of cities is homeless. This translates into 1.8 lakh homeless in Delhi.

“The survey carried out by the DUSIB is a fraud played on the destitute by the city government. Hence, we can’t rely on it,” says Singh. “Even the number of shelter homes and their capacity have been bloated,” he adds.

The DUSIB claims there are 222 night shelters that can accommodate 15,000 homeless people. “We are also putting up two more shelters, 200 sq feet each. We have done some good work at Yamuna Pushta area where almost every homeless sleeps in the shelter home,” says Malhotra.

“We are running awareness programmes for the destitutes. We are encouraging them to take to night shelters and save themselves from the bitter cold,” the DUSIB official adds.

The NGOs say the 222 shelters put together cannot even accommodate 7,000 people, going by the benchmark of 50 sq ft per person advocated by the 'National Urban Livelihood Mission's Scheme for Shelters for the Urban Homeless'.

“But the DUSIB claims to cater to 14,584 persons providing 16.76 sq ft per person,” says Singh. This means that the DUSIB doesn't even have the capacity to shelter even the `low' figure given by its own survey, he argues.

Singh has written to President Pranab Mukherjee. “Now the LG has been appealing to the citizens to donate blankets at shelter homes. He and his able administration has been sleeping till now,” Singh says.

“We have given a list of places where we require shelters, way back in October 2014 to DUSIB.

Shelters are yet to be put up at many places. Babies, children, women, elderly, disabled and families are put to ordeal in this extreme winter conditions,” his  letter to the President said.

Toll so far
According to the figures compiled by an NGO, Centre for Holistic Development, the death toll of mostly unidentified people since October has crossed 710, and December 1 onwards at least 238 bodies have been found. As many as 80 per cent of such bodies are of the homeless, claim the NGOs.

The DUSIB says that most of these homeless people are drug addicts. “They take drugs and sleep in the open. Initially, their body temperature remains high but as the night proceeds it declines drastically giving them a heart attack or causing hypothermia,” says a senior DUSIB official. “We try our best to make them sleep in the shelter homes but they don’t listen,” he adds.

But the NGOs say most of the 32 city government-run drug de-addiction centres are not functional.

“The apathy towards the destitutes is visible from the fact that only three drug de-addiction centres are functional. They can’t cater to such a huge population of the homeless. The government’s job is to provide them with proper counselling, not to blame them for taking drugs and leave them to die in such biting cold,” says Singh.

The NGOs also say that there is no regular health check-up of the homeless. “There is a provision that government hospital 'health vans’ will visit night shelters and provide medical facilities at shelter homes including the health check-up of the destitute persons living there. But the vans are not visiting all the shelter homes,” says Singh.

When Deccan Herald went on a night vist at Sarai Kale Khan earlier this month, it found that a dog and chicken were troubling a destitute as he was fast asleep at the shelter home. Homeless people were also seen sleeping under the trucks at Hanuman Mandir in Connaught Place recently. Clearly, the city needs to adopt a more compassionate approach towards the destitute.

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