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Why Delhi’s homeless prefer to sleep in the freezing cold than in government shelters

The government is 'rescuing' unwilling homeless people from the streets and packing them off to shelters. Nobody thought of speaking to the homeless first.

Winter is upon us once more. Pollution, smog and plunging temperatures transmute sleeping into a formidable daily challenge for the most dispossessed of city residents – people without homes. The more compassionate among us are stirred briefly each year about the predicament of the homeless forced to sleep in the biting cold. The Delhi government has undertaken a range of steps to aid the homeless in winter months after it was moved to action by years of civic mobilisation, judicial activism and occasional media attention.

The state government has established 218 homeless shelters in Delhi with a capacity of over 17,000 persons. However, it is confronted by a conundrum that it finds difficult to understand. At least half the capacity of the shelters lies unutilised even on the coldest nights, although tens of thousands of homeless people battle the elements without a roof over their heads. For every homeless person who sleeps in a shelter in the city, there are an estimated 15 who still sleep out in the open.

Unwilling to brook what it regards to be the stubborn and irrational resistance of homeless persons to sleep in shelters, the Delhi government this winter has launched what it describes as a massive “rescue” mission. Every winter night, officials, policemen with long thick sticks, and NGO workers scour the streets for homeless people. On locating them, they swoop down and forcefully push them into in the nearest homeless shelter.

Choosing the streets

I have seen long lines of gloomy bedraggled homeless men and women unwillingly coerced into shelters, warily eyeing policemen standing behind them with long rods. The state government has also proudly launched an app, using which any citizen who spots a homeless person sleeping in the open is invited to take a picture of the person with the details of his or her location, and it is promised that officials would expeditiously “rescue” that person by coercing him or her into the shelters.

This official campaign to “rescue” homeless persons from the winter cold is perhaps well-intended. However, it is built around the extraordinary official imagination of homeless persons as people lacking both in agency as well as basic common sense to rationally decide what is good for them and to take advantage of the state’s largesse. It does not occur to these officials to actually ask homeless persons why indeed they refuse to sleep in the shelters that the government has opened for them.

If they did, they would get cogent and coherent answers, as I did when on Sunday night I asked many homeless persons why they rebuff the shelters. Most said the shelters are so unsanitary that if they sleep in these, they contract fleas that make sleep impossible anyway, and even the days unbearable. They worry about sleeping beside strangers, bodies packed against bodies, because someone may steal the few belongings that they own.

Some like rag-pickers, street vendors and rickshaw-pullers need spaces where they can safely store their bags for rag-picking, their small stocks of materials like cigarettes or artefacts that they sell, or their rickshaws, but shelters typically do not allow these. And finally they spoke about disrespectful behaviour by shelter managing staff, who are often untrained, very poorly paid, and poorly motivated. In the middle classes, we frequently underestimate how important it is for destitute people to be dealt with in dignified ways.

Catastrophic fallout

In these circumstances, the newfound zeal of the Delhi administration and police (this is one campaign in which they are successfully and smoothly working together) to “rescue” homeless persons and clean the streets of people sleeping rough has been catastrophic for the intended beneficiaries of the state’s “good intentions”. As a gesture of solidarity and support, I spend a few nights walking the streets every winter, and have been doing so for the past decade and more. But for the first time this winter I was shocked to find hardly a single homeless person sleeping in places like Jama Masjid, Chandni Chowk, Yamuna Pushta and Delhi Gate, where earlier tens of thousands homeless persons slept rough every night for decades. It can be no-one’s case that these locations have been emptied of their homeless residents because they are now in shelters. There are around 125,000 homeless persons in Delhi and, by the government’s own estimates, at peak only 8,500 are sleeping under the roofs of their shelters. Then where are the rest of the homeless sleeping?

The places where they slept in the open for generations, now cleansed by the “rescue” operations mounted by state officials, police and NGO workers, were rough hard spaces. But they enjoyed at least the safety of numbers. Instead now they are forced to search for dark side alleys and parks that are enormously more unsafe but where the benign eyes of rescue teams are unlikely to reach.

Some are relying on small entrepreneurs who hire out quilts, and if you can afford them, mattresses and even beds. It is a package deal if you can pay for it, because you are also guaranteed that the police will not molest you because of some unwritten agreement between these entrepreneurs and the police. There are at least 40 makeshift video parlours in ramshackle temporary plastic structures, where men are packed together for warmth and for Rs 10 can watch films through the night (Bollywood interspersed with pornography) if it is too cold to sleep. For those who cannot afford these rents, the only option is to wait out the night around small bonfires of leaves and twigs. Once the weak winter sun rises, they look for places to sleep before they go out to look for work and sleep.

Respect and empathy

Is the answer that the government does nothing for the homeless? Of course not. But it must respect the homeless residents of the city as people who are struggling to survive with dignity, actually listen to them, and construct a response that genuinely addresses the formidable challenges of their lives. At present, shelters are no more than spaces where living bodies of the very poor have to be stuffed every night – the more of them fit in as little a space as possible the better it is – and summarily ejected every morning. They closely resemble Victorian poorhouses: unsanitary, undignified and disrespectful. This is surely not what India’s poorest deserve in 21st century republican India.

The largest majority of homeless persons are single working men, trying to earn enough to send home to their villages to keep hunger away from the door of their destitute families. Or these are women and children escaping monstrous violence in their homes. What they need is not poor-houses, but affordable working men and working women hostels, in which beds and lockers are available at modest rents; places of safety for women survivors of domestic violence; and for homeless children, hundreds of egalitarian welcoming residential schools, with after-care and continuing education even when they grow into young adults. For those with grave ailments like TB or injuries, the life-saving need is for recovery shelters where they can rest and recuperate in the absence of homes and families, because otherwise they would just die on the streets, winter, summer or rains.

Of course all of this would require large public investments. Even more than that, it would require respectful and empathetic official engagement with India’s working poor and survivors of violence. This would entail most of all a new cultural consensus that poor people actually matter, and are people to whom the city equally belongs. Until we are able to muster these – and that may sadly take a long time – it is best that we avoid insulting them with efforts to “rescue” them against their will into the “safety” of poorhouse shelters.

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