Roofless in Delhi - PART I

Delhi's homeless: Nameless, forsaken even in their death

No roof over their head, Delhi’s homeless battle rape, stigma and drugs. Studies say Delhi’s homeless number anywhere between 52,000 and 2,46,000.

Homeless family sleeping on a road at Delhi's Connaught Place. Delhi has only 197 night shelters for 16,174 homeless.(Photo by Arun Sharma/ Hindustan Times)

They are everywhere. Outside temples, at traffic signals, on pavements, dividers and under yellow halogen street lights. Nameless and homeless in this city of 20 million, they remain unidentified - when they die. On Monday morning, police found the body of a man in his 40s. Without a name he became a serial number in police records: UND16CL0047 (Unidentified Dead Body).

In Delhi, where no census or government body can put a number on the homeless population, HT Correspondents Prawesh Lama and Ananya Bhardwaj spent 20 nights talking with the homeless. HT interviewed them on roads, below flyovers, in parks, atop parked cycle rickshaws and in night shelters.

In 10 years, the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, under the state government’s social welfare department, spent Rs 10.90 crore on NGOs running the 197 shelters. Each month, at least Rs 45,000 is released per shelter. But in 2016, no audit or inspection has been carried by the government, according to an RTI reply from DUSIB to a city NGO.

DUSIB CEO VK Jain said the RTI reply pertained to only one division while the shelters are divided into twelve divisions. “Recently we had cancelled the contract of NGOs at 70 night shelters, who were not working properly. Regular inspection is carried by senior officers and a report is submitted,” Jain said.

In most shelters, residents say they are at the mercy of NGOs and have no grievance mechanism.

“The government should inspect and see how we are living,” a woman at the Bangla Saheb shelter compound said. As she pointed at two large holes on the doors of the two women’s shelters near her. A week later, when HT visited the shelter, men stood outside while inside women slept and a few women changed clothes. The cardboards that had covered the holes was torn off giving the men a view of the women. Outside the shelter, the mobile toilets had no latch. Two cases of rape were reported here three months ago.


The government’s 197 night shelters have a capacity of 16,174. Only 86 shelters are permanent structures (buildings). The rest are portable cabins. Since 2000, nine surveys -- including one by the Commissioners of the Supreme Court -- put the number of homeless between 52,000 and 2,46,000. Around 22,000 check into shelters each night and the rest sleep on road sides and in parks.

This summer, the number of unidentified homeless who died in old and north Delhi - where most homeless reside – is over 400. Police say most are addicts, who died of drug overdose or dehydration.

“The problem of homeless can be solved only when the government is serious about working for them,” says Sunil Aledia, from the Centre for Holistic Development, an NGO working for the homeless.

Sunil says the government and the press talk about homeless only during the winters when they die of cold. “Do you know the government has no summer action plan for the homeless? We filed an RTI seeking details about their summer action plan and were surprised when they replied that no plan exists. Even the press remembers the homeless only in winter and come to night shelters for a photo shoot. The rest of the time, they are forgotten.”

Delhi’s homeless are of many types. Some live alone, some work and return to shelters only to spend the night. Many are jobless and depend on Samaritans who visit shelters every day to distribute food.

Many men lie to their families about having their own home in Delhi. Some families have lived in shelters for more than 10 years. Not all homeless are beggars, drug addicts or criminals. Not all beggars are homeless either. Every homeless had a story to share.

Last month, a 35-year-old woman living on the street for over two decades was allegedly molested and robbed by a cop in the heart of Delhi.

A 45-year-old who has lost all his friends to AIDS and drug addiction knows his end is near but he won’t stop injecting himself.

A woman, begging outside a city temple, said she’s a farmer’s wife who comes to Delhi to beg twice a week hoping to pay off a debt she has owed a villager for 20 years.

To highlight their problems and issues and provide a sense of how they live, HT begins a five-part report on the state of Delhi’s homeless.