New DelhiThe streets are unforgiving and don’t differentiate between man and woman, child and adult, desperate and driven. But when you have nothing but the litter-laden, noise-polluted hard concrete to call home, you develop a strength stronger than fear, an instinct more feral than survival. For about 2 lakh people in Delhi-NCR, the streets are all they can call their own. Who are these people? How did they land on the streets? What’s their story? Questions like these often haunt me, so one October night, I set out to get answers. Soon after I parked myself on the footpath outside Shahidi Park on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, here’s what I learnt — in the words of a homeless person sitting next to me: “Footpath bahut kism ki hoti hai. Jahaan hum hain aaj, yeh five-star footpath hai (There are many kinds of footpaths. This one where we are gathered tonight, is a five-star footpath).”My quest was fuelled by an NGO that was urging people to leave the comfort of their homes and spend a night on the footpath. Members and volunteers of MARHAM, run by Irtiza Quraishi, had gathered there as part of their efforts towards the rehabilitation of the city’s homeless, most of whom are migrants — people who leave home in search of better prospects. I, too, found a spot in the circle formed by the motley group of volunteers, homeless and participants. Manoj Verma/HT PhotoIrtiza Quraishi addressing the gathering.BEING IRTIZAIrtiza — the name means contentment, and yet, in what can be irony’s cruelest twist, the person who owns this name in the group seems far from the emotion. Saman Quraishi, Irtiza’s cousin and governor at the NGO tells me that in 2005, his father left home and never came back. Since then, it has been an endless search. It was this search that brought Irtiza face-to-face with the city’s homeless, and he decided to do something for them.“The homeless are seen as a liability, but we see them as assets who can be trained. We help channel their energy so that they become self-sufficient,” said Irtiza, addressing the group. My journalistic inquisitiveness is piqued. Irtiza’s cousin Saman Quraishi shares, “We help them get their Aadhaar Cards and ID proofs, and also with skill training.” Some get jobs as delivery people, plumbers and electricians. As the night progresses, we are joined by more homeless faces, but only men and boys. I ask Saman what happens to homeless women? “They are sceptical of joining us,” she says. And I’m left wondering how difficult survival can be for these women in a city like Delhi, and can’t help but feel guilty at my privileges.MARHAM — Efforts and more“There are many problem areas, starting with getting the homeless documented. We help them get their Aadhaar Cards and ID proofs, and also help them with skill training,” says Saman Quraishi. The NGO also helps young homeless boys get jobs as delivery people, plumbers and electricians. “We have our shelter near Turkman Gate, but we don’t want it to be permanent home for them. We want to empower them and also help reunite them with their families,” adds Saman.MARHAM currently doesn’t have the means or measure to work for those severely addicted to drugs. A group of their boys have been employed in a canteen, while some have been enrolled in courses in NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling).The night is swampy, the only shift in breeze caused by moving traffic. There are bugs and insects, plus the constant groan of vehicle engines and screeching horns. This, plus the desperation of life, is enough to make even the most determined lose their wits. No wonder then that most resort to substance abuse. Soon, it’s the turn of the homeless to share their stories. “Dilli sheher mein apna sapna poora karenge, yehi soch ke aate hain hum (Our quest to realise our dreams in Delhi got us here),” says one man. Their stories might be heart-wrenching, but the spirit is indomitable; they joke in between sharing their stories.Here are some stories that get shared:Sujit Bhattacharya had a job as a network administrator in Gurgaon. But the night of December 31, 2015, when his contract ended, his life changed. “I tried searching for a job, but couldn’t find any. I had a laptop and tool kit, so I knew that I would do something or the other. I went to Meerut with a friend and started work at a shop, which I later got to know sold stolen items. I came to Delhi and ate and slept at Bangla Sahib Gurudwara. Circumstances pushed me to move to Gole Market.” He finally met some men who had studied art from Shanti Niketan, and got inspired to sketch. “I used to make 100 sketches in a day,” he says. Two participants came forward to buy his sketches. Satyaveer Yadav, a homeless man who ran from his home in Fatehpur, Uttar Pradesh, turned his life around and is now a proud owner of a house on the outskirts of the city. He says that the homeless get addicted to drugs because of loneliness and depression. “I lived on a footpath in Shahdara for around four months. I got addicted to alcohol because it helps one sleep peacefully on the footpath.” He also works for the rehabilitation of other such homeless and connects them with MARHAM.Manoj Verma/HT PhotoSatyaveer Yadav, a homeless person from Uttar Pradesh, turned his life around and now has his own house.Arjun Kumar, a boy from Benares, got associated with MARHAM around a year and eight months back. “I left home in 2011 on the day of Maha Shivratri and travelled across India for almost 18 months. When I reached Delhi, I couldn’t make sense of things. I used to eat at Bangla Sahib Gurudwara and sleep at the New Delhi Railway Station.” Before becoming a part of MARHAM, he had various odd jobs. Now, he is enrolled at the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) and has a membership at Delhi Public Library.Santosh, a boy who ran from home upon failing class 10 exams, greets the gathering with a “Hello guys”. This evokes laughter. “My friends ridiculed me and it affected my parents, as well. I got upset and ran away, where no one would know. I chose to come to Delhi because it’s easier to get lost in the crowd here.” He still hasn’t called home and feels that he needs to better himself further before making that call.Manoj Verma/HT PhotoThe HT reporter interacted with the homeless on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg.At around 1.30am, two new volunteers enter the group with bags of rusk and kettles of tea, which is passed around. The road is getting quieter and an eeriness starts to loom. We can see Irtiza shifting from one cluster to another, discussing and deliberating solutions. It’s a battle worth fighting and I was glad I got to see tireless hands and minds working in this direction.