For a few years now, the authorities at Medicine Hat, a small Canadian town, have been doing what most civic agencies would have dismissed as outright foolish. They offered the town’s homeless — drug addicts and alcoholics included — furnished flats for free, The Economist reported last week.
The scheme has brought the town closer to the target of ending homelessness by 2015. If the municipality succeeds, it will be the first in North America, where housing-first movement is gaining ground, to achieve the feat.
The Economist calculated that in many of these cities, “the long-term rough sleepers were about 15% of all homeless people but used more than half of all public spending on services for the homeless as they cycled through emergency medical care, detox and jail. Calgary, the first Canadian city to use a housing-first approach, recorded average annual savings of more than $30,000 per person from housing its most acute cases”.
A similar approach may not work in Delhi, a city that faces a shortage of 1.13 million homes. According to the economic survey, the Capital receives at least 75,000 migrants every year. The total population of Medicine Hat is 61,000. Surely, the numbers bog us down. Even as the Delhi government promises to do more to protect its homeless, the ad hoc measures are never going to be enough. But it is not only because we have too many people sleeping rough. Experts say it is because we don’t count them all.
In 2010, a survey commissioned by the government under Mission Convergence found 55,955 homeless in Delhi. Voluntary groups claimed there were at least 1,50,000 - roughly 1 per cent of Delhi’s population.
The 2010 counting took place when Delhi was hosting the Commonwealth Games. Most street dwellers were pushed out to give the Capital a clean, clutter-free look. But they all came back. A 2011 survey under the Supreme Court Commissioner’s Office assisted by both the government and NGOs found 2,46,800 homeless in Delhi. But the latest one by Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) pegged it at 16,760.
Even if we go by the lower estimates, Delhi’s homeless are clearly out in the cold. They catch the attention of city planners, the government and media only around the time when the temperatures start dipping. Although mandated in the Master Plan, the issue of homelessness is not in-built in our urban planning.
Between snapshot surveys, DUSIB has been building portable cabins and pitching tents every winter since 2010 when it was set up. There are some permanent shelters but the space is always inadequate. Many seek shelter at local temples, gurdwaras and mosques. Last winter, the Arvind Kejriwal government turned seven old DTC buses into temporary night shelters. The Blueline Transport Operators’ Association had offered to provide 20 more.
The government gives Rs 35,000 to NGOs for maintenance of its 184 shelters. After factoring in the running cost, if they were to provide counselling services and storage space to the homeless as ordered by the Supreme Court, the NGOs would need more funds. The cost cutting is evident in the state of the shelters.
Rehabilitation, a key long-term solution, is completely missing from the existing schemes. The chronically homeless like the drug addicts, alcoholics and persons with mental illnesses are left unattended on the streets. When they make it to the night shelters, their presence drives others out.
Of the 32 detox centres opened by the government, said the Shahari Adhikar Manch in an affidavit to the high court, only three are functional. For the mentally ill, there’s only one government-run rehab facility.
Unlike Medicine Hat or Calgary, which spend a lot on treating drug addiction and mental illnesses among its homeless, we avoid accountability by simply not investing in long-term solutions. No city has succeeded in getting every homeless person off the streets. But with no reduction targets in place, Delhi is not even trying to get at least a few back on their feet.