Delhi’s homeless stare at cruel summer as temporary shelters set to be dismantled

The Delhi Heat Action plan makes no provisions for the homeless; winter shelters are taken down in the equally harsh summers.

“I have been living in this shelter for almost three months since it was set up. It has helped me survive the bitter cold; otherwise, I might have died on the streets,” says Raj. Raj has been residing in a temporary shelter in the vicinity of Daryaganj that the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) had set up as a response to the extreme cold experienced by Delhi’s homeless population.

This last winter, DUSIB had established 190 shelters accommodating approximately 8000 people across the city. These tent shelters are part of DUSIB’s winter action plan to address Delhi’s extreme winters.

However, while these were constructed by DUSIB to help the poor and homeless survive the cold, they are now set to be dismantled with the onset of warmer weather. According to DUSIB, these shelters will be dismantled by March 15th. This has left many in the lurch.

Ramachandra, residing in another temporary shelter at AIIMS with his wife, says, “We’ve been here for four days. My wife is undergoing treatment at AIIMS for her tumour. We’ll have to come back here again in three months. When it’s cold, we get a tent, but when it gets warm and the tent is removed, we sleep near Metro gate no. 2.”

Neha, another resident of a temporary shelter around INA, also says, ‘Where can we go? We’ll have to go back to the streets.’

Summer vulnerability in the capital

Delhi finds itself equally vulnerable to both the biting cold of winter as well as intense and long heat waves during summer. Residents of the city are scorched by the blistering heat, characterised by soaring temperatures, especially between April and July. 

March 2022 went down in history as India’s hottest month on record according to the IMD*, while Delhi braved its second-warmest April in a span of 72 years. In April 2022, the capital endured a heat wave where temperatures soared above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) for seven consecutive days.


Read more: Dire warnings: More deadly heat waves, more often, which could cause more deaths


According to D S Pai, director at the Kottayam-based Institute for Climate Change Studies, increasing concretisation, deforestation and changes in land use are causing extreme departures from normal maximum temperatures across India. Delhi is no exception.

With new or worsened heat patterns, temporary shelters for the homeless in summer are as crucial as in winter. Naturally, a call for their extension rings loud and clear. As Neha says, “These shelters should not only be extended but also equipped with facilities like fans and coolers for summers. Otherwise, what purpose do they serve?”

The inequity of climate impact

A recent study on homelessness and climate change in Delhi revealed that the impacts of extreme heat on homeless people are even more profound due to their extended marginality and limited ability to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Boy drinking water from tap
Access to water is also a critical issue for those living on the streets during summer. Representational image. Pic: Gopal MS, Mumbai Paused

According to the study, 88% of interviewed homeless individuals reported the lack of access to drinking water along footpaths, roads or shelters even during extreme heat. They confront a myriad of health challenges including dehydration, respiratory difficulties, fever, coughing, diarrhoea, and even cholera due to the scorching temperatures. 

“During the summer, it’s very difficult. We sleep here and there,” says Ramachandra’s ailing wife Meena, “The heat radiates from the ground all day long, making it difficult to even lie down on the streets.”

The severity of the situation is underscored by the tragic loss of numerous lives attributed to extreme heat. According to a study released by the IMD and quoted in this report, heatwaves claimed the lives of 30 individuals in 2022, marking it as the fifth warmest year on record since 1901.

And it is not just the heat. In June 2023, the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi issued a warning about the rising ground-level ozone pollution and multi-pollutant crisis that the city faces during summers. Air quality is often construed to be a winter issue, but the CSE release underlined that summer air in the region is also a toxic cocktail of gases and multiple particulate forms – particulate, ozone, nitrogen oxides and even high CO pollution.

As shelters are dismantled, and the poor turned out on to the streets, their exposure to the toxic air through the day and night become inevitable, creating disastrous health consequences.


Read more: Wounds of heat – Chennai’s climate catastrophe and caste


Inadequate adaptation plans: Too few shelters

While the extension of temporary shelters could provide a temporary solution, Rakesh Kumar, the caretaker of a shelter near AIIMS, highlighted, “It would be better if DUSIB constructed permanent shelters. If there was a permanent shelter near AIIMS, this problem would be solved.”

Beds and people inside the shelter near AIIMS Metro station
Delhi currently has a total of 195 shelters, that can accommodate 16,675 beds, approximately 92% below the estimated population of homeless individuals in the city. This is inside one of the shelters. Pic: Anuj Behal

The shortfall of shelters is not limited to areas around AIIMS; rather, Delhi faces a significant shortage of homeless shelters overall. Currently, there are a total of 195 shelters in the city, including 82 permanent structures (RCC buildings) in existing government buildings, 103 porta cabins made from tin sheets, and 10 shelters constructed under a ‘special drive’. 

Despite these efforts, the total capacity of these 195 shelters is only around 16,675 beds, which is approximately 92% below the estimated population of homeless individuals in the city. Independent experts and estimates suggest that in Delhi, at least 200,000–250,000 individuals live in homelessness, highlighting the urgent need for further action to address this issue.

What is stark is the fact that  Delhi’s Heat Action Plan released in 2023 leaves a chilling void: it completely overlooks the critical needs of the city’s most vulnerable: the homeless.

Note: The author is one of six selected Fellows for the Citizen Matters – Urban Environmental Reporting Fellowship 2023 focusing on the Delhi-NCR region. This short piece was produced as part of his work under the Fellowship.

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Comments:

  1. Akansha Deshmukh says:

    This report by Anuj highlights the critical issue of homelessness in Delhi, particularly the challenge posed by extreme weather conditions. It details how temporary shelters are provided for the winter but are dismantled come summer, despite the harsh heat that can be as dangerous as the cold. This situation emphasises the urgent need for comprehensive urban planning and social support systems that consider the full environmental impact on vulnerable populations. The narratives of individuals like Raj, Ramachandra, and Neha bring a human face to the statistics, underscoring the necessity for action.

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