Homeless prefer sidewalks to govt shelters

Grossly inadequate in numbers and lacking basic facilities, the shelters force the homeless to prefer the unsafe sidewalks of Delhi.

New Delhi: The wrath of the cold wave
currently gripping the nation`s capital has been particularly
harsh on some 60,000 homeless who continue to live in
sub-human conditions notwithstanding repeated orders of the
Supreme Court that they be looked after.

Grossly inadequate in numbers and lacking basic
facilities, the shelters force the homeless to prefer the
unsafe sidewalks of Delhi.

Throngs of homeless remain huddled under flyovers and
hunched inside plastic tents, the homeless seem to have given
the shelter homes a cold shoulder.

"I have lost my shoes and had my money stolen on many
occasions. These incidents are common at night shelters," says
25-year-old Sita, a homeless.

One of the most important reasons, cited by the homeless,
for avoiding shelter homes is lack of proper hygiene.

"The blankets provided at these shelters are unwashed and
smelly. We do not know who slept on those bedrolls before us
and the blankets are usually full of lice, bedbugs and other
ticks," says a homeless who stays on a footpath.

Currently the city administration runs 135 night-shelters
with a total capacity of around 13,000 people but shortage of
shelters and lack of basic amenities like water and sanitation
in existing ones are forcing the homeless to stay put on
unsafe sidewalks and under the flyovers.

For the past three years the Supreme Court has been
passing periodical directives to the authorities across the
country including Delhi to provide night shelter facilities to
the homeless during winter.

On Monday last the apex court pulled up the authorities
for failing to provide shelters to homeless and directed them
to "preserve and protect" the lives of homeless people by
providing them roofs with all necessary facilities.

The city government claims that it has constructed
adequate number of night shelters. However, the occupancy rate
in the facilities has been very low due a number of reasons
like lack of basic amenities, fear of theft and poor hygiene.

Admitting certain shortcomings, CEO of Delhi Urban
Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) Chetan Sanghi claimed Delhi
government has improved infrastructure at most of the 135
shelters and even provided locker facilities in some of them.

"The Supreme Court order is not Delhi specific as the
matter involves a number of states. We have adequate number of
night shelters and we are in the process of setting up more,"
Sanghi said. The DUSIB has been tasked to look after the
shelters as well as construct new ones as per requirement.

Sanghi said following complaints of theft at some of the
shelters, government has asked police to increase security in
and around the facilities.

According to Dr Deepak Gupta, diseases like fungal
infections, tuberculosis and other respiratory infections are
quite common in homeless people. "They also carry parasites
and pass it on to one another."

Apparently drug addiction is also quite rampant among a
section of the homeless living on the streets and they usually
do not prefer to live in a shelter for the fear of losing

"I have seen people selling the clothes just to get
drugs," says Raj Kumar, a street-dweller. "Once they get
accustomed to living a carefree life, the idea of losing
privacy in shelter homes is not very attractive to them," he

Another reason for people avoiding shelters is that there
are separate camps for men and women."Segregation of families
is not acceptable to homeless people and that is why we see so
many mothers sleeping with their children on the sidewalks,"
says activist Bharat Dogra.

For those with mobility limitations or other illnesses,
shelter homes are not very helpful either.

Pinky, an amputee vagrant left a women`s shelter because
she was "insulted, beaten and eventually thrown out."

The Supreme court in its order last week had asked the
Joint Apex Advisory Committee, comprising the members of the
NGOs and Delhi government officials, looking into the issues
related to homeless people, to take action on the basis of its
report to "ensure" that relief reaches helpless people
"without any loss of time".

The court issued the directives after perusing the report
of the inspection of the night shelters carried out by the
court-appointed commissioners and officials of the Delhi Urban
Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) between January 9 to 12.