Homelessness starker than ever in pandemic

Shelter as human right

Impact India Consortium, a group of NGOs, helped migrant labourers and homeless people find food and shelter during the lockdown. Photo: Ramachandrappa H T

A survey conducted by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palik in November last year said there were 4,246 homeless people in the city. As many as 3,380 of them are males, 857 females and nine sexual minorities. They live in and around the city railway station, bus station, footpaths and empty plots. Civil society organisations had proposed then that the BBMP set up 77 shelters for the homeless, including separate ones for women.

While these are the official figures, the number of shelterless is clearly far higher. The current availability of working shelters, 10 by official claim, is nowhere near the desired number. 

Pandemic makes matters worse 

The pandemic and the lockdown only made matters worse for the homeless. Indiaspend in May 2020 reported that 1.77 million Indians were homeless, and almost 16 states which house 40% of India’s homeless made no effort in extending lockdown relief to them. Delhi, Maharashtra and Kerala were the exceptions.

Some communities were more affected than others. Ramesh M.C., founder of Vidyaranya, an NGO that shelters senior citizens, street children and women, says there was a surge in homelessness among, particularly among transgenders during the lockdown. Considering that many transgenders indulge in begging at traffic signals, the lockdown hit their livelihood, he points out. 

Even living in a shelter during this period posed potential risks. Rajani Srikakulum, a consultant for Urban Homeless Project by Impact India Consortium, says that it was impossible to maintain social distance at night shelters. While BBMP did try to reduce the numbers in some shelters to half in order to ensure social distance, it only meant reducing the intake even as the demand surged.

While homeless are generalised as “beggars”, Rajani says that 85% of the homeless are employed in daily wage jobs such as catering, loading and unloading and construction work. All these people were rendered unemployed in this period. 

“We urged BBMP to open up few government schools for the migrant labourers, and although few schools gave up their premises for the entire lockdown period, it was insufficient,” Rajani says. People who had homes but could not make the rent, also sought refuge in these shelters.

Citing transmission fears, many MLAs and Corporators refused space in their neighborhoods, points out Rajani. “They are extremely reluctant particularly if there are any homeless transgenders, and refuse to provide space,” says she. Public perception of homeless people as “nuisance” and criminalisation of acts like beggary has further complicated the situation.

The yawning gap 

The union ministry of housing and urban poverty alleviation, in an order dated 24th September, 2013, had mandated the establishment of “one permanent shelter equipped with essential services” per one lakh residents. This vision is nowhere near completion.

While there are currently 10 shelters spread unequally across its eight zones, the BBMP is in the process of readying three more shelters in the south zone. A BBMP source said that “in each shelter, we provide drinking water, TV, newspapers, while a few have washing machines, bathrooms and night-time meals”. 

Rajani counters this. Apparently, only nine of them are functional, and that is not even one shelter per one million citizens. While the shelters provide cots and fans, she says they do not offer food or sanitation facilities.

“To eat three-square meals a day, a person has to spend a minimum of Rs.100-120. If they want to use toilets to shower or wash their clothes, that’s an additional expense of Rs. 30,” she adds. These are supposed to be 24X7 shelters, and require at least three staff members. But this is impossible to source this within BBMP’s annual grant of Rs. 5 lakhs, Rajani, who has been seeking a Rs.5 lakh increase per shelther, points out. 

Ramesh, who is currently involved in the upkeep of the BBMP’s night shelters, complains about erratic payments by state and central governments agencies. “They have paid Rs 6 lakhs for four years,” he says. He requires no additional help except for payment on time, he says. 

Cutting the red tape

According to Rajani, the officials tasked with devising solutions for the homelessness under the National Urban Livelihoods Missions (NULM), are overburdened. Shelters are just one of the six components they handle, and so, they are unable to give it their undivided attention. “If BBMP wills, it is possible to set up shelters in every zone within six months,” she says. 

BBMP has to sanction lands for these shelters, but there is strong resistance from politicians and locals to offering land in their localities, she states. When the BBMP planned to construct 80 shelters, they were forced to halt after politicians resisted having homeless people in their area.

As homeless people are often found at bus and railway stations, the BBMP approached the BMTC, KSTRC and the Railways seeking land for shelters. It is learnt that the response was none of them was positive.

A BBMP source pointed out that the real problem is not the budget, and that the need of the hour is for officers to take the initiative in setting the ball rolling. BBMP’s 2019-20 budget for shelters was Rs.1 crore, which was not entirely utilized, the source revealed.

A human rights issue

Dr Prashanth N S, assistant director of research at the Institute of Public Health, underlines the need for bigger investments in shelters in all cities and the need to treat homelessness as an issue of human rights and social security.

He believe that homelessness is wrongly looked at through the lens of charity. “They need rehabilitation and a dignified integration into mainstream” he states. The BBMP needs to do away with “expert committees” and their blanket response plans, and constitute a decentralized group of psychiatrists or social workers to deal with the issue.

Pointing out the link between homelessness and mental disorders, he says it homelessness also induces chronic stress and is the root cause for conditions like anaemia, malnourishment and skin problems.

“We need an entire workforce that can install a social security apparatus for homeless communities, help them come out of this severe life crisis,” Dr Prashanth says. He recommends multi-level coordination between BBMP’s social welfare department and ward-level committees. 

“A lot of countries have managed to tackle homelessness through a solid network of social welfare entities like community kitchens, charities or government-organized temporary food and shelter,” he states, adding that India has failed to acknowledge or invest resources to resolve this. 

Rajani says while shelters are a temporary respite, housing should be the long-term solution, which is currently not even on the radar of the civic body. 


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About Pragathi R 12 Articles
Pragathi R is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer with a keen interest in mobility, governance and gender.

2 Comments

  1. Hi, very well written article. The urgent focus should be on providing immediate relief to urban homeless persons so that nobody has to live under the sky even for a single day/night. Having said that, ‘these issues need a multi-dimensional appraoch’. The programme should focus on sustainable rehabilitation. Starting with making them gainful employed and those already working into next level of earning. Along with this, providing life skills to these homeless group to make them self-aware, improve self-esteem and self-efficacy, nothing much is going to change except for short term amelioration by providing ‘just night shelter basic services’. What about those who are differently abled needing speical assistance? A lots to be done. However, haivng the night shelter to begin with is a good move….more needs to be done. Thanks. All the best.

    • Thought provoking ….. Many times funds are not the only issue….. Requires full time commitment of time and effort from somebody who can understand the issue

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