The street is their home

ZEESHAN SHAIKH, Laxman Singh
In the megapolis with a population of over 1.25 crore, the state claims that there are only 57,416 homeless people in the city. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

A week before the deluge of July 2 brought Mumbai to a grinding halt, city officials evicted 35-year-old Ashwini Ramdas Pawar from under the Amar Mahal Junction flyover.

Pawar, who had been hoping that the massive concrete structure would provide her cover from the elements, is one of the many faces of Mumbai s homelessness crisis.

Homelessness stares Mumbai in the face on every street. India s financial capital, and its richest city, is also where thousands of people sleep rough on footpaths, under flyovers, and on road piders because they have nowhere else to go.

As per a Supreme Court directive, the government is responsible for providing shelter equipped with essential services to the urban homeless.

In the megapolis with a population of over 1.25 crore, the state claims that there are only 57,416 homeless people in the city. On paper, it claims to fund 23 shelter homes across Mumbai which can accommodate no more than 780 people.

Even so, Pawar would not be able to gain entry into any of these homes. These homes cater to specific categories, such as juveniles, sex workers, abandoned women, beggars, and others. There is no shelter in Mumbai for those who do not fall in these categories and yet do not have a roof over their heads.

At one end the state is trying hard to get us off the streets whereas at the other end it is making it equally difficult for us to find accommodation in shelter homes, Pawar says.

While the problem of homeless is severe in Mumbai, the issue does not seem to receive any consideration from politicians or bureaucrats. A Supreme Court-appointed committee had graded Mumbai s efforts in creating shelter homes for the homeless as poor .

Mumbai is one of the cities having the largest number of homeless persons. For a problem of urban homelessness of this magnitude, the city needs to take extraordinary steps in a time-bound manner. As of now, there is a huge gap between the capacity of the shelters and number of urban homeless in the city, the report submitted in 2017 had said.

Who are the homeless

Globally there are an estimated one billion homeless. The United Nations defines a homeless person as not only someone who lived on the street or in a shelter, but also someone whose shelter or housing failed to meet the basic criteria considered essential for health and social development.

The Indian definition of homeless households as per the census is households which do not live in buildings or census houses but live in the open or roadside, pavements, in hume-pipes, under flyovers and staircases, or in the open in places of worship, mandaps, railway platforms, etc.

According to the 2011 census, there are 17.70 lakh homeless in India of which 57,416 stay in Mumbai. Brijesh Arya of Homeless Collective says that homelessness numbers are severely underreported with the total number in Mumbai running into over two lakhs.

The poorest sections of society are the most prone to become homeless. Signposting invisibles: A study of the homeless population in India , an academic paper written by Nishikant Singh, Priyanka Koiri and Sudheer Kumar Shukla, lists breakdown in familial relationships, financial difficulties and lack of affordable housing, natural disasters, social exclusion and forced migration due to economic and environmental problems as the causes of homelessness.

Apart from being forced to live in the open many of the homeless are forced to lead a life as non-citizens. Their problems are further compounded by the distrust they face from the public and administration who look at them as being unhygienic and at times criminal as well.

This perception leads to missed opportunities in terms of education, jobs and leaves them susceptible to exploitation. Studies have also shown the prevalence of risky sexual behaviour and a greater prevalence of addiction.

Census data, however, shows that contrary to popular perception, there is considerable participation of the homeless population in economic activities. The work participation rate among the homeless population is about 52 per cent, which is higher than the national average.

State support

In 2012 the Supreme Court had passed an order calling for the setting up of one shelter home with a capacity of 100 for every 1,00,000 city population. The central government had subsequently come out with a scheme of Shelters for Urban Homeless in 2013 which spoke about ensuring availability and access of the urban homeless population to permanent shelters including basic infrastructure facilities like water supply, sanitation, safety and security.

The scheme specifies a space of 50 sq ft per person in each shelter home. As per the scheme, the Centre would fund 75 per cent of the cost of construction of the shelters and the remaining 25 per cent would be contributed by the states/UTs. The urban local bodies were given the responsibility of monitoring and evaluation of the scheme.

The Supreme Court subsequently set up a committee under Delhi High Court judge Kailash Gambhir to review its implementation. The report tabled by the committee said that the implementation of the scheme was unsatisfactory.

The committee in its status report for Mumbai rated the implementation of the scheme in Mumbai as poor . As per the report, Mumbai in 2017 had only nine shelters with a total capacity of 412 persons. As per the norms laid down by the Supreme Court, Mumbai should have a total of 125 shelter homes.

A visit to the 23 functional shelter homes (with a total capacity of 716) that the BMC claims to run shows how difficult it is for a homeless person to get entry into these shelter homes.

City s shelter homes

The objectives of the Shelter for Urban Homeless is to ensure the availability and access of the urban homeless population to permanent shelters including basic infrastructure facilities like water supply, sanitation, safety and security.

The rules say that shelters should be permanent, running throughout the year; and open round the clock. They also need to have a minimum space of 50 sq ft per inhabitant.

In reality, however, most of the shelter homes do not follow the norms and remain inaccessible for the destitute and the most vulnerable. The one near Dharmashala Chowki in Bandra abutting the local BMC office is said to have a capacity of 10 persons. Most of the occupants who are presently staying at the shelter home are former inmates of the state juvenile home in Mankhurd, who have been asked to move out of that place as they are more than 18 years of age. I used to stay at the Mankhurd juvenile home. I was asked to move out as I was over 18 years old and have now been staying at this shelter home. I am presently studying in a college, a resident of the Bandra shelter home said.

He said that it is very difficult for a homeless or destitute man or family to get entry into these shelter homes.

Similar is the case of the Matunga shelter home where inhabitants are out-of-towners who have come to Mumbai for treatment in nearby hospitals. The shelter home also does not allow inhabitants to access its premises in the night. The facility gets locked up and does not admit people in the night flouting the rule that shelters should be accessible 24×7.

Another shelter that is being operated in Kamathipura does not allow male destitutes to walk in. The operators of the shelter claim that the facility which has a capacity to house 20 people is only meant for children of commercial sex workers.

We have been telling BMC officials that our home was meant for children of commercial sex workers and the existing capacity is not enough to take care of the need of this area. We are in no position to house destitutes who come to our doorsteps, a supervisor of the Kamathipura shelter home said.

Activists, meanwhile, say that the BMC is not serious about creating shelter homes for the poor. The BMC claims that it has created 17 shelter homes for the homeless. In reality these are all existing facilities that are being run by NGOs either for orphans, street children or children of commercial sex workers. The Supreme Court has mandated the construction of 24×7 shelter homes for all the homeless. The BMC has so far not created one such centre as per NULM norms in the past few years. It is next to impossible for a homeless man to walk into these centres and ask for shelter. The BMC is not interested in taking care of the homeless, Brijesh Arya of Homeless Collective said.

Activists blame the local administration and the police over their handling of the homeless crisis and say that the absence of shelter homes and the eviction drives by authorities scar the poor both physically as well as psychologically.