Rain, chill or heatwave, homeless poor have few places to turn to

SHELTERS IN CITIES

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It has been just over a week since Mumbai was lashed by the highest 24-hour December rain in a decade due to cyclone Ockhi. Temperatures dropped sharply, schools were shut, and companies issued advisories to employees. But when such a disaster strikes the city, the most vulnerable are invariably its homeless.

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Brijesh Arya, an activist working with the homeless in Mumbai, mentions many cases from Mumbai’s monsoon floods this year. One is the case of Anju Kharwa, who held her child on her shoulders for as long as the floods raged. The flood that lasted nearly two days had caused water to rise up to people’s chest level.

Anju, who lived next to a gutter, was worried that her child would just flow into it. Arya says, “She had also delivered a child just two weeks before the floods. During the flood, her husband was away for work, so she was struggling alone to keep the children alive. The children couldn’t eat the entire time.”

Instead of helping the urban homeless, the government makes them more vulnerable during floods, says Arya. “Some ten days before the floods, officials held an eviction drive here, removing the plastic sheets of the homeless.” Worse, 99% of the city’s homeless have no shelters to go to in an emergency, despite floods being a regular affair in the city every year.

Mumbai has over 57,000 homeless as per the 2011 census, but has only nine homeless shelters that can accommodate 412 people. Arya however says that the census numbers in themselves are gross underestimates, and that the actual number of homeless in Mumbai would be close to 2-3 lakhs.

“The census of homeless was completed in just one night, on February 28, 2011. Also, a large number of homeless work at night, whom they missed,” he says. Activists in other cities echo the same concern, and summarily dismiss the census figure of 9.4 lakh urban homeless for the entire country.

How does extreme weather affect the homeless?

Extreme weather events have become perceptibly more frequent in recent years. Floods are becoming common in metros like Bangalore and Ahmedabad, and even in smaller cities, due in large part to unplanned urbanisation and encroachments that destroy cities’ natural drainage system.

While the actual floods last only a few days, the homeless in these cities are impacted for many days before and after. These are mostly working people, in occupations like rag picking, rickshaw pulling and casual work. They also include victims of domestic violence, the elderly, the disabled and families who have been living on the streets for generations.

During the monsoons, they wear wet clothes and stay hungry for days, which could make them ill. “They have no place to dry clothes, and the sack where they keep their clothes would be drenched too. They have no place to cook food, and the smaller shops from where they can afford to buy food are closed in such weather. Most homeless are daily wage labourers, and they wouldn’t find work for about five days after a flood. So they don’t have money to buy food either,” says Arya.

Even when they fall ill, many hospitals don’t take them in, as they have no ID card or are simply unclean, says Shivani Chaudhry of the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) in Delhi. Diseases like TB and dengue are generally quite high among the homeless, she says.

As winter sets in in Delhi, many homeless deaths are expected as usual. But studies find that even more deaths occur during summer and monsoons, says Shivani. “During summer, the ground would be burning hot, and the homeless on the streets get dehydrated,” she says. Heat vulnerability, which increases the risk of heat-related deaths, is highest in the central and northern states in India, finds a 2017 study.

According to a HRLN report to the UN, in 2012-16, Delhi recorded over 15,000 unidentified dead bodies, of which 70-80% were estimated to be that of the homeless. These bodies are usually cremated without any inquiries. Shivani says that additionally, many untimely deaths occur in homeless families too.

It is sad that these realities prevail even when state governments are mandated, and also funded, to build shelters for the homeless.

Shelters for the urban homeless

According to the orders of the Supreme Court and directives under the centre’s National Urban Livelihoods Mission (NULM), cities should have permanent, 24X7 shelters for the homeless. There should be at least one shelter for every lakh of urban population, each capable of accommodating 100 people. Some shelters can be exclusively for the most vulnerable among homeless, such as single women or the disabled.

Shelters should have minimum space of 50 sq ft per person with well-ventilated rooms, lighting, water, toilets, common kitchen and utensils. Services like mosquito control and regular cleaning of beds should be provided regularly. Shelters should provide the homeless with a proof of address and help them acquire BPL and ration cards, voter ID etc., which will enable them to access government schemes such as pension, government school admissions etc.

These shelters can be run by the government or the agencies that it identifies. The guidelines are specified under the Shelter for Urban Homeless (SUH) scheme of NULM.

The real state of shelters

A 2017 report by a Supreme Court-appointed committee, headed by retired Justice Kailash Gambhir, lays out the abysmal conditions of homeless shelters. It notes that state governments often don’t pay operation and maintenance costs to NGOs who run the shelters, despite having funds.

Assessing homeless shelters in 10 cities, the report rates Mumbai and three other cities as ‘poor’. Three others – Bangalore, Kolkata and Kanpur – have the worst rating of ‘extremely poor’. This rating is based not only on the number of shelters, but also on how they are run, the initiatives taken by these cities (such as surveys, mapping) etc.

Kanpur is the city with the highest number of homeless at over 80,000 as per 2011 census, but has no shelter for 98.6% of them. Kolkata is the metro with the highest number of homeless, at about 70,000, but has no shelter for 98% of them. Though the homeless numbers are much lesser in Bangalore (around 14000), here too 98% are shelterless. The report pulled up both Kolkata and Bangalore for having shelters run by untrained NGOs, and not conforming to SUH norms.

It also said that shelters in Gujarat’s cities are poorly run, because of ‘extremely limited resources’. In Ahmedabad, tenders were awarded to NGOs who bid as low as Rs 20 per day per inmate, which compromised the quality of the shelters.

Arya says that Mumbai has got away with a better rating than deserved; he says that adult shelters here are just night shelters for homeless to sleep in.

Except Delhi, Ahmedabad and Jaipur, all other cities have shelter capacity to accommodate  less than six percent of their homeless population.

City Number of homeless as per 2011 Census Capacity of shelter homes Number of homeless without shelter Percentage of homeless without shelter Ranking
Mumbai 57416 412 57004 99% Poor
Chennai 16682* 2350**  NA  NA  NA
Bangalore 14189 253 13936 98% Extremely Poor
Delhi 46724 17800 28924 62% Good
Kolkata 69798 1588 68210 97.7% Extremely Poor
Hyderabad 37587 1819 35768 95% Poor
Ahmedabad 12318 2840 9478 77% Poor
Surat 36144 1278 34866 96% Poor
Kanpur 80877 1078 79799 98.6% Extremely Poor
Chandigarh 4133 239 3894 94% Average
Jaipur 11396 1875 9521 83.5% Average

Source: The report of Justice Kailash Gambhir Committee on shelters in India

* Chennai corporation’s NULM survey in 2014 identified only 8226 homeless

** Chennai data is not from the committee report

Delhi is the only city that got a ‘good’ rating, while Jaipur and Chandigarh are ranked ‘average’. Chandigarh has the least number of homeless among the 10 cities, at about 4100.

Delhi was rated ‘good’ for setting up many shelters, enough to accommodate 38% of its homeless. But the report also mentioned that many of these shelters were unlivable – most lacked basic facilities and hygiene and didn’t have all-weather construction; some were just tents along the road. Because of this, the report says, many homeless prefer the streets instead.

Shivani says, “In shelters, toilets are not cleaned and blankets are washed only 2-3 times a year, which can spread infections. Many shelters don’t have any locker facility for residents to keep their savings, and don’t even allow them to cook.” 

The report had criticised the Delhi Development Authority for demolishing a major shelter for women and children this year in the name of removing encroachments. This is when homeless women are highly vulnerable to sexual assault and trafficking, and shelters for them are quite few.

Will states meet their 2022 target?

NULM requires all states to build shelters for their homeless by 2022. For this, SUH guidelines dictate that cities should first hold surveys to find the actual number of homeless, map their locations and identify land for shelters nearby. As most homeless stay and work in busy areas like bus stands, shelters should be set up near them.

The committee report, however, found that none of the 10 cities had completed the survey or mapping. Jaipur was the only city that started the survey. Chandigarh is the only one that started the mapping process by evolving guidelines. Chandigarh is also the only one that has formed Shelter Management Committees (SMCs) and the Executive Committee (EC), that monitor the functioning of shelters.

Of the states in the report, Mizoram is the only one whose cities have finished the survey and mapping process. Mizoram also got an ‘excellent’ rating for having shelter capacity for 3000 people, while having only around 100 homeless overall.

The committee report points out that many states are sitting on considerable amounts of unspent NULM funds. As of this March, the Maharashtra government had unspent funds worth Rs 99 cr, Gujarat Rs 47 cr, and Delhi Rs 21 cr. The severely lagging states of UP and West Bengal had unspent funds of Rs 19 cr and Rs 17 cr respectively. Collectively, states had unspent funds of Rs 412 cr, and have been sanctioned Rs 228 cr for 2017-18.

This was for all components under NULM, and not for SUH alone. When the committee asked state governments to disclose their specific spending on the shelters, they did not. The committee has recommended holding states accountable for fund disbursal, and having third party audits of shelters.

Can NULM take homeless off streets?

Vanessa Peter, Policy Researcher at IRCDUC (Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities) in Chennai, says NULM funding is minimal. Under NULM, the annual funding for a shelter for 50 people is only Rs 6 lakh, including the salaries payable to four employees. But Chennai corporation had been giving funds worth Rs 10-13 lakh per shelter even before NULM came into effect, says Vanessa.

“Chennai corporation is the still the only one that gives excess funds for shelters. But even these amounts are not sufficient to rehabilitate the homeless or reintegrate them with their families,” she says. Without these measures, the homeless can’t be taken off the streets. “The needs of homeless people vary – some may need long-term institutional care, some may need legal aid in case of a property dispute etc. Multiple state government agencies should coordinate for these, but they don’t, as there are no state level guidelines for this,” she says.

Vanessa says SUH can be integrated with other components of the NULM for skill training, self-employment etc, but this doesn’t happen either. These components are targeted at other urban poor and not the homeless.

Shivani says that shelters are only the first step, and permanent housing should be the goal. “Housing is a basic necessity for living with privacy and dignity. But housing schemes like PMAY only target slum populations who have ID cards and are creditworthy.” She points to the Kerala government’s scheme of building hostels for migrant workers as a positive model.

Hence, even in cases where states implement the SUH scheme properly, a lot more needs to be done to improve the conditions of the homeless.


About Navya P K 25 Articles
Navya P K is a former senior staff journalist at Citizen Matters, and a freelance journalist based in Kerala.