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Winter in the shadow of pandemic will be tough to weather for the homeless

By Abhishek Dey, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON DEC 15, 2020 11:48 PM IST

Around an hour past sunset, Sonu Sharma wrapped up his paint brushes in a torn bedsheet and zipped up his thin jacket as he hurried towards a makeshift cabin in the Yamuna embankment area, connecting Nigambodh and Kudesia Ghats in north Delhi’s Kashmere Gate.

The cabin – which he shares with 13 other men – has been his home for the past eight days. By the time he reached, a few men had lit a small fire in the open and were huddling around it. Among them was Sharma’s new cabin mate Dilip Dhar.These men have been forced by the biting cold to leave the pavements they usually lived on to take shelter in the cabin.

Winter, this year, in the shadow of the pandemic, is going to be a tough one for the home to weather.

With the mercury falling to a minimum of 4 degrees Celsius on Tuesday, hundreds of homeless have started searching for night shelters. While a few shelters have electric heaters, inhabitants mostly have to settle for a blanket and a plywood bed with a thin mattress.

“We have seen people around us on the pavement frozen to death by morning. A shelter at least ensures us a chance to survive. Outside, we would probably be protected from the disease (Covid-19) but the cold will kill us,” said Mohammad Saqib, a cart puller who now lives at a shelter in south-east Delhi’s Sarai Kale Khan.

The “disease” fear looms large in the minds of the inhabitants who are forced to share the tiny closed space with numerous others, thereby heightening the risk of transmission. Revenue department officials said they send medical teams periodically to shelters and that no new inhabitant is assigned a space without a Covid-19 test. Those diagnosed as positive are sent to government-run care centres, the officials said.

The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) has 213 shelters across the city, with a total capacity of accommodating around 18,000 people. But because of social distancing protocols, this year, the capacity has reduced to around 7,000, said a senior revenue official.

The capacity is woefully inadequate, considering that unofficial estimates -- the delhi government does not have an official figure -- put the number of homeless in the capital at 150,000.

Delhi government officials did not respond to requests for comment.

In the winter, shelters across the city see an occupancy of around 11,000. The government plans to bridge this gap with a winter-action plan. The plan includes 250 additional tents – against 75 in 2019 and 60 in 2018. Of the 250 additional tents, 100 have already been set up in the past 10 days, spread across 22 locations, said the senior DUSIB official.

“Currently the shelters and additional tents are catering to around 7,000 people at night. Also, this year, there may be lesser occupancy because a lot of people who went to their villages during the lockdown have not returned. But, in case more people come, we can increase the capacity,” the official said.

However, the rate at which the homeless are seeking shelter has long surpassed the rate at which the additional tents are being set up, said Sunil Aledia, executive director of the Centre for Holistic Development, which is also one of the several NGOs entrusted with the management of shelters in the city.

“Schools in the city will not open, at least till the winter ends. Then, what is stopping the government from using school buildings as shelters? Also, day-to-day delivery of several basic amenities – from electric heaters to medicines – have been affected by the fund crunch wrought by the pandemic. This winter would be a difficult one to pass,” Aledia said.

Indu Prakash Singh, member of a Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee for night shelters in Delhi, said: “A review meeting of the committee is scheduled later this week on which all matters regarding shelters will be discussed. The DUSIB has ensured that the capacity issue will not be a problem. But there is a need to strengthen systems to ensure that people in need of shelters are able to get them.”

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