Things to do in Delhi if you’re homeless this winter

Betwa Sharma
Grist Media

How does one survive nights of near-freezing temperatures in Delhi if you’re poor and homeless or from out of town? Places of worship are a natural port of call, but with city’s migrant population on the uptick, there are only so many that the Gods can host.

Figures in raggedy shawls bent over dying embers under bridges and flyovers are a familiar sight in Delhi. According to Government statistics, winters are the second biggest cause for deaths due to natural disasters, outdone only by lightning. It’s not easy finding a warm and cozy hearth, but the capital does offer some spots to sleep – some say relatively better than most parts of the country. Better, perhaps, than the Muzaffarnagar relief camps where 34 children have died this winter.

But one has to be prepared to deal with the drama and chaos that comes with finding a place in the city’s underbelly, surrounded by strangers, who sometimes become friends or just take a leak in the next bed.

Night shelters

If a roof and four walls are essential for your nightly regime then opt for a homeless shelter. The government has set up around 180 of these shelters, which include temporary lodgings under tin huts. 

But considering some 4,000 people in the capital still sleep outdoors, it can be hard to find a space. Occupancy of shelters can range from 200 to 10 people. There are separate shelters for men, women and families.

Location and trivia about good shelter spreads through word of mouth in the laborers and rickshaw pullers circuit. Do your homework and ask around for a shelter run by a non-profit group, which do a better job at maintaining hygiene and preparing better food that those managed by the government.

Chances of getting into one of these shelters will improve if you carry an identification card preferably issued by the government like the Aadhaar card.

Another tip is queuing up early in the evening or making friends with the supervisor and the handyman of the shelter who can get you in.

Basic facilities include warm bedding, a bed and a hot meal for 10 to 20 rupees.

Some of the modern shelters also offer lockers for storage, water coolers and television for entertainment.

As for company, folks from out of town won’t feel out of place because the majority of residents are from outside Delhi. It’s a chance to meet people from all over the country trying to find their feet in the big city. But the sleeping crew doesn’t just comprise of poor folk. Be ready to encounter a significant number of alcoholics and drug addicts who leave home or are kicked out by their families. And there are also many who leave home over family disputes. 

Now most shelters have strict rules against bringing alcohol and drugs inside the premises. But folks do come intoxicated to the shelter. Most of them just crash in bed but some nights be prepared for squabbles and the occasional – as residents of one shelter describe it – Mahabharata. Most fights are contained inside the shelters but sometimes the police are called in.

The toilet facilities vary across shelters. The bigger shelters have toilets that are cleaned in the evening but these can be appallingly gross by the morning, courtesy the alcoholics. It is also highly recommended that one find a bed away from an alcoholic because it is not uncommon for them to relieve themselves in their beds.

Some shelters divide their space between the good residents and the troublemakers, who after a few bouts of bad behavior are also shown the door.

What appeals to most residents of these shelters are the friendships they forge with each other since many can’t return to their families.

Mohammed Kamaluddin, 55, who left his hometown of Calcutta after falling out with his family in 2009 lives in a homeless shelter run by a non-profit group in south Delhi with 200 others and highly recommends it. After having wandered around the country, Kamaluddin finds shelters in the capital to be the best but he never eats the vegetarian food that is served. Kamaluddin won’t say why he left his family and his electrical shop for a life of manual labor and loneliness. But he says that life seems less bleak after finding people in similar situations and making friends with a few of them.

His friend, Rajabari Ansari, 55, who left his family in Maharashtra, couldn’t agree more. Ansari, who works as a laborer, has opted for a homeless shelter over rented accommodation because he finds it to be cleaner that any of locations he can afford for Rs 3,000. After living in one for seven years, he isn’t bothered by the drunks or their brawling and wetting the bed. Ansari spends his free time trying to persuade others to reconcile with their families, but won’t heed his own advice. He actually recommends the homeless shelter as a great place to retire for elderly men who don’t intend to return home.

Several homeless shelter residents suggest that the shelters would greatly benefit if counsellors for alcohol as well as drug addiction, and possibly even depression, could be made available.

The homeless shelters run from 7pm to 7am.

Rent a cot and bedding

If one doesn’t get into shelter, and if the places of worship are also full, the next relatively warm option is to rent out a cot, a mattress and a quilt for Rs 30. Or just rent a mattress and quilt for Rs 20 and spread out on the floor, or get the quilt for Rs 10. One of the oldest hotspots for blanket rentals is close to the Jama Masjid in old Delhi, where the service works on a first-come-first-served basis.

And the man who has been running this service for the last three decades is Mohammed Jameel, a tea seller, who runs the operation in collaboration with a few friends. On a cold night, in a rather unsavory locale, littered with the drunk and the high, the large man with a white beard slips into the role of mother hen. He doles out tea and buttered buns to those who can pay him Rs 10.

At 9pm, many people have already buried themselves in thick quilts under the night sky. But those who find the prospect of sleeping under the stars distressing can take heart because arrangements are made to spread tarps over the cots – flimsy, but nonetheless a roof to spread over dozens of cold heads.

Suresh, 40, a rickshaw puller from Bihar, enthusiastically jests that he’d rather be in the open air than a shelter. He laughs and says he is now used to it since he has been renting a cot for several years. But as a bracing wind produces a collective shiver across the camp, Suresh confesses that there are no spots lefts in the indoor shelters by the time his shift ends in the evening, and so he trudges towards the cots everyday. He spends Rs 30 rupees out of the Rs 150-200 of his earnings everyday during winter.

Around 200 people rent cots from Jameel, who increased the fare from Rs 15 to Rs 30 a few years ago. But his operation caters only to men. As he puts it, “making a 1000 men sleep is easier than making a woman sleep.” Considering the atmosphere of booze and catcalls in the area, it wouldn’t be recommended for single women to rent a cot here, or even venture too close to the camp of sleeping men. 

Many of Jameel’s customers look obviously stoned as they clumsily try to pull out a quilt, or lurch drunkenly to their beds, but he doesn’t mind as long as they go to sleep without causing any trouble. Some of the men lounging in the cots, having a chat before lights go out, even joke that booze and drugs are necessary to steel oneself against the night cold, or simply feel numb to it. And someone from the back of the sleeping camp bursts into a song about life and numbness, which is met with scattered applause, before he is asked to shut it.

While the sleeping area has a seedy, almost sinister character, Suresh and another man who is perched on his cot, say that those who come here everyday have also nurtured a familial atmosphere. What do they recommend? Counting blessings for and under the quilt, jamming ones eyes shut and retreating to a happy place, before waking up to the morning fog. 

Although it isn’t advisable for single women to rent cots, families can easily do so. A few minutes walk away from Jameel’s cots is another operation run by a young man called Aamir, who provides cots for families – one cot for the father and another cot for the wife and children to curl up in. So it works out to Rs 60 a family per night.

But Jameel’s rent-a-cot service may not be around for too long. In recent years, pressure from the police has increased to close his big bedroom under the sky, which is spread out on government land. Jameel regularly gets harassed by cops (especially after terrorist attacks in the city) who see the space as possible crash pad for terrorists.

Bed, Bus and Beyond

Adding to the temples, cots and shelters, is the new venture by the recently elected Aam Aadmi Party, which is on a drive to convert old discontinued Delhi Transport Corporation buses into temporary shelters for the night.

Four buses are standing outside the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) now. By way of location, patients traveling into Delhi for treatment are likely to be the first beneficiaries of the space inside the buses, which have been stripped of their seats.

On Saturday night, Setandar, 45, sat upright next to his older brother who was sleeping under a blanket near the door of the bus. Every few minutes, Setandar secured the sides of the blanket to make sure no air got in through the sides.

His brother came from Bihar in the first week of January to be treated for stomach cancer at the hospital. For almost two weeks, the middle-aged cancer patient along with his accompanying relatives slept out on the streets until they heard about bed-bus service.

Flashing a broad smile, Setandar admitted that his family didn’t know much about the Aam Aadmi Party, but they had heard back in Bihar that the party had come to power quickly. Setandar said that AAP had come up with a quick and effective idea to keep people warm in the night. “We are comfortable,” he said, rubbing his hands under his blanket.

Currently, there are only about 30 people in the four buses under the AAP initiative. More have been promised in the past week, but have not yet materialized. Like the regular shelters, the bus-bed service is being managed by non-profit groups, which provide quilts and sheets to tuck up in the night.  Each bus also has a watchman to make sure everyone is comfortable and safe. Dhaneshwar Mehto, a watchman in a bus said that it has been a challenge turning away some unpleasant and boisterous people, who try to forcibly grab some space.

The curious mix of people in these buses, and the proximity to the hospital, lends these shelters a charged air – relief for the warmth, hope for their loved ones to get better and grief for those who have died. Next to Setandar’s group is a large family that arrived recently from Bengal to get treatment for an elderly relative, but they returned on Sunday after performing his last rites. The soft weeping sounds of one woman in their group was drowned over the din of gentle snoring rising from the several spots of the corridor, but she couldn’t conceal her tears.

As the traffic outside melted away, and the city fell silent, travelers from Bihar consoled the ones from Bengal in a bus that goes nowhere.

Betwa Sharma is a journalist based in New Delhi.