A wishlist to tackle homelessness in Chennai

Following a stakeholder consultation held on Jan 12th, IRCDUC has listed some key demands to improve the lives of the homeless in Chennai.

The Minister for Municipal Administration and Water Supply in August 2021 pointed out that 53% of the total population of Tamil Nadu is currently residing in urban areas and that this figure is likely to become 60% in 2036. The demographic and vulnerability profile of the urban homeless in Chennai are heterogeneous in nature and they face several intersectional issues.

Currently, the shelter for the urban homeless is seen as the only viable solution to address the multi-dimensional vulnerabilities faced by the people. However, there is an emerging need to develop a comprehensive intervention

  • to ensure access to basic services and schemes vested with different departments.
  • to address the intersectional issues faced by the different vulnerable groups residing in a homeless situation through timely and specific interventions
  • to widen the horizon of the existing interventions for the homeless beyond the ‘shelter approach’

In an attempt to consolidate the views of the different civil society agencies to further strengthen the homeless people’s wishlist ahead of the Tamil Nadu Budget for 2023-24, the Information and Resource Center for Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC) conducted a stakeholders consultation meeting on January 12.

Around 38 individuals participated in this meeting, including women residing in homeless situations in Chennai, activist agencies like the Unorganised Workers Federation and the Penn Urimai Iyakkam, an academic institution like the Madras School of Social Work, non-government organisations like ActionAid, Daya Rehabilitation Trust, Plant, Social Watch Tamil Nadu, and Uravugal Sustainable Development Trust, a representative from Legalease Solutions and students from Loyola College, Stella Maris College and Mar Gregorios College, Chennai.

The growing urban population in the state and the irreversible impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the most vulnerable population calls for a specific programme to address urban poverty in a comprehensive and sustainable manner and here are some of the key issues and demands.

Challenges in accessing basic services by the urban homeless in Chennai

Access to food, water, sanitation, healthcare, education, and shelter continues to be areas of challenge for the urban homeless. For children, access to education is also a challenge.

9% of the children from 6-14 years of age are school dropouts of which 4% are employed in hazardous workplaces including slaughterhouses and steel factories. The number of school dropouts increases in the age group of 15 to 18 where almost 42% of the children are not pursuing higher education. Many children continue to study in street situations after returning from school and do not have access to Illam Thedi Kalvi a scheme for ensuring education at doorsteps which is crucial for children in street situations.

Access to health has always been a struggle for the urban homeless. At times the homeless persons in Chennai who are rescued and admitted are found again on the streets in a day or two without receiving the required treatment. Many times, those who are discharged will require to follow up and for homeless who are individuals without any caregivers, follow-up is not possible in street situations and therefore there is a requirement for recovery shelters.

The unavailability of identity documents like PDS cards and Electoral Identity Cards has been a deterring factor for the homeless to access social safety measures available for the most vulnerable groups.

The survey undertaken by GCC in the year 2018 reveals that 48% of the urban homeless do not have access to PDS cards and 42% do not have electoral identity cards. Persons without access to PDS cards (homeless individuals who do not have possession of their ration cards or homeless families with no ration card) will not be registered under the Population Health Registry (PHR) and hence will not be able to access Makkalai Thedi Maruthuvam (Healthcare at doorstep). The lack of documents also prevents persons from accessing the Chief Minister’s Comprehensive Health Insurance Scheme (CMCHIS).

A recent survey carried out among 400 unorganised workers in homeless situations in Chennai has shown that 99% of workers in homeless situations were not enrolled with the Tamil Nadu Unorganised Workers’ Welfare Board which is essential for availing financial aid such as for marriages of children, education, and pension benefits, among others.

Read more: Helping a homeless, mentally ill woman in Chennai: A personal experience

Non-inclusion of vulnerable groups in the Tamil Nadu Urban Employment Scheme (TNUES)

Worker engaged in desilting
The Urban Employment Scheme has currently been rolled out in two zones in Chennai. Pic: Greater Chennai Corporation/Twitter

While IRCDUC welcomes the TNUES, they also point out the gaps in the inclusion of the most vulnerable population in this scheme. The operational guidelines of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 issued in 2013 by the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India has identified the following vulnerable groups as special categories:

  • Persons with disabilities
  • Primitive Tribal Groups
  • Nomadic Tribal Groups
  • De-notified Tribes
  • Women in special circumstances
  • HIV positive persons
  • Internally displaced persons

However, the Guidelines for the scheme issued by the Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department (Government Order Number: 69 dated 13 September 2021) do not include any of the aforesaid vulnerable categories.

Read more: Will the Urban Employment Scheme in Chennai end the woes of urban poor?

Absence of convergence of existing programmes for the urban poor in Chennai

Currently, the existing schemes for urban homeless people in Chennai are functioning in different departments within the Urban Local Body (ULB), while the Shelter for Urban Homeless Scheme (SUH) is being implemented by the Department of Public Health, Support to Urban Street Vendors (SUSV) scheme under the Revenue Department and the employment guarantee scheme is being implemented by the Works Department of the ULB.

Urban homeless families are not included in the existing housing programmes of the State Government, nor is the housing continuum ensured for those in the shelters as part of the rehabilitation programme. Therefore, non-access to housing schemes, especially within the cities is one of the reasons for the increased number of urban homeless families in the cities of Tamil Nadu.

For over a decade, families in homeless situations have been demanding housing near their places of livelihood. They have made several representations to the Government of Tamil Nadu and to the National Commission for Scheduled Caste for housing facilities. Earlier this year, the Government of Tamil Nadu recognised the need for housing for 1,500 homeless families in North Chennai but issues relating to the payment of beneficiaries’ contributions (10% of the housing cost) continue to remain unresolved.

At present, free housing for homeless families depends exclusively on the availability of funds with the land-owning department or the project implementation agency to bear the beneficiaries’ contribution. Hence, there is a need for evolving a policy decision on the payment of beneficiaries’ contributions, especially for vulnerable sections like the urban homeless, women-headed households, the elderly, transpersons, and persons with disability.

Read more: Residents of Chennai’s resettlement sites fight against all odds to receive their pension

Lack of policy/guidelines regarding the urban homeless in Chennai

With an absence of specific allocation of funds for shelters at the state level to bear the costs of shelters that are functioning for more than 5 years the sustainability of these shelters is a concern. As there is no state-specific scheme/policy for shelters for the homeless there is a need for evolving a specific scheme with fund allocation to address this fund gap.

Based on the interactions with different stakeholders IRCDUC has proposed the following wishlist to the Tamil Nadu government

1. Process for evolving gender-sensitive and community-specific budgeting – TN Budget:

The gender Budgeting Cell of the Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department, Housing and Urban Development Department and Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board (if constituted) should organise a pre-budget consultation with representatives of deprived communities and civil society agencies for evolving specific plans for the TN Budget Session.

2. Protection from Arbitrary Evictions, Enhanced Access to Housing, and People-led Habitat Development:

  1. Persons from homeless situations should be protected from arbitrary and forced evictions.
  2. Confiscation of the belongings of persons in homeless situations and dumping them as ‘garbage’ should be immediately stalled. Such practices by officials should be construed as violations of the human rights of deprived communities.
  3. All housing programmes for the urban homeless should be made available within 3 kilometres of their current place of habitation.
  4. Housing for persons in homeless situations should be provided free of cost without burdening the most vulnerable persons to bear the beneficiaries’ contribution. As over 90% of the persons in homeless situations are Dalits, free housing should be provided under the Special Component Plan.
  5. Persons in homeless situations should be prioritised in the existing housing programmes.
  6. Family Shelters Rental housing programmes should be introduced for families in homeless situations.

3. Identity Documents and Social Entitlements:

  1. The government of Tamil Nadu should set up special camps in hotspot locations and in shelters to proactively deliver eligible documents and enrol persons in homeless situations to schemes they are entitled.
  2. Standard Operating Procedure to be evolved for enabling access for urban homeless to basic identity documents and social entitlements in e-seva centres and taluk offices.

4. Health:

  1. To avoid the usage of words like c/o platforms in the police accident records that affects the dignity of persons in homeless situations.
  2. Specialized Recovery Shelters for those requiring long-term treatment to be set up for individual homeless who do not have caregivers. Referral to shelters without the availability of trained health workers will further worsen their situations.
  3. To plan for preventive health measures during critical seasons (monsoons/summer) with a calendar approach and preplanned budget measures. Rapid response mechanisms during outbreaks.
  4. Ensuring regular Women Health Volunteers (WHV) visits in the Hotspot Locations in the City. WHV from homeless communities can be identified and trained to make the programme more effective 
  5. Mobile Medical Units (MMUs) with immunization services, Ante Natal Care, Post Natal Care, Family Welfare Services Lab, Adolescent Care, Referral Services and Counselling Services) in the hotspot locations, can be implemented in partnership with NGOs (Similar to the MMUs in the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). MMUs can also be functional for 24 hours to address emergency care.

5. Education:

  1. Under the Illam Thedi Kalvi Scheme, there is a provision for setting up learning spaces near the areas where the children reside after school hours for children who have recently dropped out and found it difficult to cope with education. Illam Thedi Kavi Scheme is to be implemented with modification as “Makkalai Thedi Kalvi” to cater to the special needs of children in homeless situations.
  2. Exploring possibilities of setting up Residential/Non-Residential Special Training Centres (NRSTCs) – for children who have dropped out and are out of school for more than 1 year.

6. Livelihood:

  1. Special camps to be organised for the urban homeless to enrol them in the Tamil Nadu Unorganised Workers’ Welfare Board
  2. Skill Development Initiatives, Entrepreneurship Programmes and other components under the DAY-NULM scheme should be prioritised for persons in homeless situations.

7. Shelters for Urban Homeless in Chennai:

  1. There is an emerging need to draft a comprehensive policy on urban homeless to facilitate inter-departmental coordination and to bring the various programmes implemented by multiple departments under a policy framework to facilitate effective planning, implementation, and evaluation like the Rajasthan Homeless Upliftment and Rehabilitation Policy, 2022
  2. A state-specific scheme for the urban homeless with budgetary allocation needs to be evolved
  3. The need for institutionalising social audits for shelters and the meetings of the State Level Monitoring Committee constituted based on the order issued by the Honourable Supreme Court of India (Government Order Number: 206, dated 16 May 2018, Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department) to assess the quality of the scheme should be conducted periodically.
  4. All Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) to ensure that special shelters for the elderly, persons with disability, persons with mental illness, transpersons, and migrant women/men are accessible and set up in coordination with the respective nodal departments as per the DAY-NULM Guidelines.

[This article is based on a Press Release by IRCDUC and has been republished here with minimal edits.]

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