Urban homeless: Shelters need to step up, but can only be stopgap solution

Many states are yet to comply with the guidelines regarding shelters under the Scheme for Urban Homeless. A long term vision is needed, say experts.

In 2017, the Gambhir Committee’s National Urban Livelihood Mission Shelter Inspection Report submitted to the Supreme Court observed that homeless shelters in the country were in a dismal condition. (The committee was comprised of three members and headed by Justice (retd) Kailash Gambhir.) Many states did not comply with the guidelines of the National Urban Livelihoods Mission (NULM). 

Five years later, the homeless are even worse off due to the pandemic, loss of livelihoods and unusual weather events triggered by climate change. The NULM is now aiming to provide, in a phased manner, permanent shelters to the urban homeless under the Scheme for Urban Homeless (SUH). The Ministry of housing and urban poverty alleviation had set 2022 as the target year to provide shelter to the urban homeless.

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

Who are the homeless?

The government’s definition of the homeless includes those who don’t have a house, either owned or rented. They usually live on the streets or wherever they can find space — pavements, parks, under flyovers, railway stations, bus stations, construction sites, or even idle concrete pipes, to name some spots. These become their makeshift shelters.

Government guidelines lay down that shelters for the homeless should be all-weather accommodations and that for every one lakh population there should be permanent community shelters that can accommodate a minimum of 100 people. Depending upon local conditions, each shelter should preferably cater to 50 or more persons. The minimum space per person should be 50 square feet and the shelters should be well lit, well-ventilated, have clean rooms with basic amenities like bathing and cooking facilities.

Other guidelines include adequate fire protection measures; pest and vector (mosquito) control; regular cleaning of blankets, mattresses and sheets, maintenance of other services; child care facilities for children by linking the shelter to the nearest Anganwadi; facilitation for convergence with other services/entitlements.

Guidelines ignored

Dr Indu Prakash Singh, member of the Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee for urban homeless, however says that many states have not abided by SUH norms. The Supreme Court, ruling on petitions filed by Dr Singh and others, had stipulated in 2003 that the norms of Delhi’s Master Plan for (MPD 2021) must include shelters for the homeless, rules for which cover all states as per the SC’s ruling. The norms stipulate that there has to be 24×7 day shelters all year round, with one shelter per 100,000 urban population, and that each permanent shelter should measure 1,000 square meters, and incorporate the NULM’s provisions.

But some states, such as Maharashtra, have not implemented the SUH norms in its entirety, as Dr Singh points out. “The Shelter Management Committee should meet at least once a month,” said Dr Singh. “It is also better to appoint the IAS officers from within a particular state, for example, in Himachal Pradesh, the Chairperson is from Chandigarh/Delhi and has to travel to Shimla for meetings.”

Dr. Singh also highlights that payments for running shelters is not done on time. “Some have not been paid for two to three years.”

NULM funds are also not being distributed on time. Some states don’t have enough homeless shelters. “Bengaluru, for example, hardly has eight or nine shelters for lakhs of homeless,” he adds. Poor implementation is another major problem area. “There are cases where the shelters constructed are not operational,” Dr Singh points out. “The homeless (Dr Singh calls the homeless ‘citymakers’) don’t even know it is there for them, and the shelter is used for some other purpose.” 

The role of media and citizens

 “Delhi is one of the best in taking care of the homeless,” says Dr Singh. “We have received support from the Delhi government to aid the homeless. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided free of cost in the shelters. There is also a Rain Basera mobile app in which if someone sees a homeless person sleeping on the streets, they can take a photo and send it to the concerned people immediately, and if the person is found to be homeless, they are rehabilitated.”

He adds that it is important to engage citizens and media to highlight the issues of the homeless. 

Some states have taken initiatives to support the homeless. “Rajasthan has a policy for both rural and urban homelessness, while Chennai has also drafted a policy on homelessness. Mizoram has abided by mapping the number of homeless, while Delhi, Hyderabad, Telangana, and Gujarat are also doing their bit with help from some private organisations,” according to Dr Singh.

How accurate are the Census numbers?

One key concern is the number of undocumented homeless. The 2001 and 2011 Census, for example, did not capture the exact number of homeless. “As per the 2001 Census, there were 24,000 homeless people in Delhi, but that was half the number we had discovered in our survey,” says Dr Indu Prakash Singh. The survey was done in 2000 and published in 2001, titled The Capital’s Homeless, by Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan, of which Dr Singh is a former director. “Similarly, the 2011 Census recorded that there were 46,724 homeless people in Delhi but in our survey the number was 88,410. The issue is not just the numbers, but the process”.

Ground realities

Mansoor Khan, Campaign Coordinator, Housing And Land Rights Network (HLRN) says that in Delhi there are about 197 homeless shelters, which includes permanent buildings and porta cabins. “However, it isn’t enough to accommodate the almost 2.5 lakh homeless in the city,” he says, “Also, there are no bathing facilities in most porta cabins. In some shelters there are no beds and mattresses. In most shelters they are following the SUH guidelines of space requirements, but in some they aren’t.”

A poster outside a Rain Basera Shelter of the Delhi Shelter Board
Delhi is one of the cities that has taken positive steps towards providing shelter and assistance for the homeless, say experts. Pic: Delhi Shelter Board

With regard to the guideline that location of shelters should be as close as possible to the living and work places of the homeless, Mansoor says, “In Delhi, some of the shelters are situated far from the workplaces of homeless daily wage labourers, so they prefer to sleep on the road near the workplaces. There are some shelters, like in Meena Bazar and Yamuna Pushta, where the shelter is close to the labour market, but their occupancy is always full, leaving many people out on the streets.”

He adds that it has been found that over the years, the number of homeless families in Delhi have increased relative to the number of homeless single men or women. Also, while there are caretakers and other staff taking care of the shelters, the disbursement of funds from the government to the shelter management authorities is often delayed for up to 1.5-2 years.

Brijesh Arya, Founder-director of Pehchan India, an NGO that works for the upliftment of the homeless in and around Mumbai, says, “In Maharashtra, overall, approximately 400 to 500 shelter homes are required, but the approximate official shelters that are there now is 98.” 

Brijesh adds, however, that smaller cities in Maharashtra have more or less implemented the NULM guidelines. “For example, there are shelters in Udgir, Jalgaon that run well, but in Nasik, Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad and Mumbai I don’t see any effective implementation of the NULM guidelines. In Mumbai, 125 homeless shelters are required, but even to this day there are only about 13 homeless shelters. Funding does come from NULM, but the municipal corporation lacks the will to implement the guidelines. If the corporation works in collaboration with other departments it can build 125 shelters.”

Brijesh also points out that the homeless were the worst affected by the pandemic because they didn’t get enough food to eat or water to drink. “In Mumbai, monsoons are a critical time for the homeless, and it was promised that 26 monsoon shelters would be set up, but in reality it is still under processing. Before every monsoon or winter season, there should be preparedness for the homeless. Even if there are no shelters, at least the homeless should not be evicted or temporary set ups be established for the homeless. There should be no police harassment against the homeless.”

Read more: Where goes the slum dweller evicted in Indian cities?

“NULM funding comes, but Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) don’t have much will to implement the scheme. But, at the same time, smaller municipal corporations are doing good work,” he says.

A long term vision

Aishwarya Ayushmaan, Programme Officer HLRN, says Delhi has the most shelters in the country and the Delhi government is generally more responsive to the needs of the homeless. “The Delhi government increased the number of tents for the homeless during winter as we requested,” says Aishwarya. “The Delhi government also provides free breakfast, lunch and dinner in homeless shelters”. 

But what is required is a long-term vision for the homeless, rather than emergency relief through shelters. “From our work we have found out that homelessness is often an inter-generational and lifelong issue,” says Aishwarya. “People are born into families that have been homeless for generations. While shelters offer a temporary solution, it cannot be a place where the homeless are forced to spend entire lifetimes.

“Shelters do not take into account the social needs of homeless persons. The government needs to have a plan of getting homeless people out of the cycle of poverty and ensuring that they have access to livelihood and some form of adequate housing that respects their dignity. More models of social housing, for example hostels and rental vouchers, are needed for this.”

“We need to have master plans for which shelter spaces, housing, hostels are allocated for the homeless. They need to be part of the city plans,” Dr Singh concludes. 

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