Urban homeless people lead hard lives with no shelter or social protection even while sustaining cities with their cheap labour. Inhabiting city footpaths, public parks, hume pipes, or the courtyards of shrines, they are invisible to the State, because they lack a formal address, and also even the elementary markers of citizenship of poor people in India, like ration cards and voters’ identity cards. We estimate that at least 1% of the population of cities is homeless, making the numbers of urban homeless persons at least around 3 million.
My colleagues and I studied for the Planning Commission the social, economic and nutritional situation of urban homeless people in four cities — Delhi, Chennai, Madurai and Patna. We found that life on the streets involves surviving continuously and precariously at the edge, in a physically brutalised and challenging environment. Elementary public services and healthy food are denied. The challenges of this bleak and often lonely existence are aggravated by a hostile State, which illegalises and even criminalises their self-help efforts for shelter and livelihoods.
Our studies revealed that contrary to our assumptions, homelessness is mostly not a transient condition of recent migrants. People become homeless after falling through every support and security net: of the family, of the community, and of the State. They are not just socially excluded but expelled. Once they become homeless, they tend to remain that way forever. The chances of homeless people dying are at least eight times more than those who live in homes. They can rarely escape homelessness, unless the State makes special efforts to pull them out of their desperate, nearly hopeless conditions.
However, entirely contrary to this, in almost every city in India, homeless citizens have remained resolutely neglected by local and state governments. Governments have rarely provided to them even minimal essential services of basic survival, such as shelters, to ensure that they do not have to sleep rough under the open sky. Shelters are part of the urban landscape in cities around the world — but not in India. Although there was a provision for night shelters in earlier Plans, even this has lapsed due to lack of initiative by state and local governments.
This has begun to change — very slowly — only with the intervention of the Supreme Court of India. In the winters of 2009-10, when homeless persons were dying on the streets because they had no shelters, we wrote to the Supreme Court about the ever-looming threat to the fundamental right to life of people living on the streets in Delhi. The court directed the Delhi government to immediately provide shelters to them, with basic amenities. The Delhi High Court also took suo moto notice, and has monitored this closely.
The Supreme Court extended its directions to build permanent shelters in all major cities to all governments. But even two years later, no government has complied with these orders, and many states with huge homeless populations - like Maharashtra, Gujarat, West Bengal, Assam and until recently Bihar - have been particularly recalcitrant.
Many occupants of shelters work during nights, such as head-loaders or those serving in wedding parties, and thus need shelters to sleep during the day. Casual workers also often do not get employment on a daily basis, and so often need shelters during the free days. Therefore, shelters should open through the day and night and must be located close to the areas where the poorest can find casual work - railway stations, bus depots, terminals, markets, wholesale mandis, etc. The destitute population among the homeless — including those into begging, the mentally ill, the elderly, women headed households, persons with disability and street children — are often the most invisible, and various social security, food, education and healthcare schemes of the government elude them due to their perceived illegal existence.
Homeless shelters can never be a substitute for housing or social protection. Shelters are the necessary first step for homeless persons to escape disaster-like situations in which they find themselves. But they should not be their final destination, which must be decent affordable social housing. Able-bodied homeless men and women should be helped to move from shelters over time, to working women’s and men’s hostels, and labour transit camps for construction workers; and further to rental accommodation, and finally their own dwelling units. However, the most vulnerable segments of homeless persons, such as old persons without care and mentally ill and challenged persons, may need long term social protection institutions.
Governments must recognise and respect the autonomy and independence of homeless people and make clear that all shelters are voluntary, and people can’t be treated as being in custody. In many cities, anti-beggary laws are misused to criminalise homeless people. This must stop. Most homeless people work, they do not beg. But those who do beg should not be treated as offenders, but as people to whom the State must extend social protection on priority.
Today, people who the State most violently persecutes are those who should have the first claim to public support. Governments must secure for the most wretched of our cities elementary protection of a roof over their heads and the rights and the dignity that are due to every human being, but which have been too long suppressed and too long denied to our homeless populations.
Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal