In India’s capital, Delhi, winter’s plunging temperatures and the polluted smog turn sleeping into a formidable daily challenge for the most dispossessed of city residents—people without homes. The state government has established 218 homeless shelters in Delhi with a capacity of over 17,000 persons. However, half the capacity of the shelters lies unused even on the coldest nights. There are around 125,000 homeless persons in Delhi by the government’s own estimates, yet only 8,500 are sleeping under the roofs of their shelters. For every homeless person who sleeps in a shelter in the city, there are an estimated 15 who still sleep out in the open. Delhi’s local government has launched what it describes as a massive “rescue” mission. Every winter night, officials, and policemen with long thick sticks, as well as NGO workers scour the streets for homeless people. On locating them, they forcefully push them into the nearest homeless shelter. Also, the state government has launched an app, through which any citizen who spots a homeless person sleeping in the open is invited to take a picture of the person with the details of his or her location. And it is promised that officials would expeditiously “rescue” that person by coercing him or her into the shelters.
It does not occur to these officials to actually ask homeless persons why indeed they refuse to sleep in the shelters that the government has opened for them. If they did, they would learn that the shelters are so unsanitary that if they sleep in these, they contract fleas that make sleep impossible anyway, and even the days unbearable. They worry about sleeping beside strangers, bodies packed against bodies, because someone may steal the few belongings that they own. Some like rag-pickers, street vendors, and rickshaw pullers need spaces where they can safely store their bags for ragpicking, their small stocks of materials like cigarettes or artefacts that they sell, or their rickshaws, but shelters typically do not allow these. And finally they spoke about disrespectful behaviour by shelter managing staff, who are often untrained, very poorly paid, and poorly motivated. At present, shelters are no more than spaces where living bodies of the very poor have to be stuffed every night—the more of them fit in as little space as possible the better it is—and summarily ejected every morning. They closely resemble Victorian poorhouses: unsanitary, undignified and disrespectful.
The places where they slept in the open for generations, now cleansed by the “rescue” operations mounted by state officials and police, were rough hard spaces. But they enjoyed the safety of numbers. Instead, now they are forced to search for dark side alleys and parks that are enormously more unsafe but where the benign eyes of rescue teams are unlikely to reach.
The largest majority of homeless persons are single working men, trying to earn enough to send home to their villages to keep hunger away from the door of their destitute families. Or these are women and children escaping monstrous violence in their homes. What they need is not poor houses, but affordable working men and working women hostels, in which beds and lockers are available at modest rents; places of safety for women survivors of domestic violence; and for homeless children, hundreds of egalitarian welcoming residential schools, with after-care and continuing education even when they grow into young adults. For those with grave ailments like TB or injuries, the life-saving need is for recovery shelters where they can rest and recuperate in the absence of homes and families because otherwise they would just die on the streets, winter, summer or rains.
Of course, all of this would require large public investments. Even more than that, it would require respect and empathy. This would entail a consensus that poor people actually matter.
World Socialism Party (India)