While Delhi's homeless prefer the new porta cabins as night shelters, housekeeping needs a push

For the third winter season in succession, the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court criticised the Delhi Government for not opening adequate night shelters to house the Capital's homeless. Even as it rushed to meet the numbers, the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) ushered in a “qualitative” change - something much beyond what the courts had mandated. In place of tent shelters which led to as many as 17 fires and death of two children last year, it worked on a war footing and opened 46 fire-proof porta cabin shelters.

Besides protecting inmates from the biting cold and blazing fires, the 800-sq ft structure is an improvement over the cloth tents and has quickly become popular with the homeless, since installation in late-December. With its wooden floors, laminated vinyl exterior, iron-sheet walls, fire-retardant roof and high ceilings, windows, solar lighting, and fire-resistant mattresses, these have cost the Government Rs.3 lakh per structure. Their running, however, is left to the voluntary agencies.

At Mori Gate, the Beghar Foundation's porta cabin shelter houses an average of 80-90 persons daily though ideal capacity is 40. The pungent smell of soggy blankets pervades the interior. Because of the cold, windows cannot be opened. A crew that vacuum-cleans blankets and mattresses make the rounds of the 100-odd shelters in the city. But it can cover only five shelters per day. Despite this, Pappu and Salim, cycle-rickshaw pullers hailing from Bihar, are happy. “After a hard day's work, it is a relief to stay here,” Pappu says. Salim adds: “This is the best place I have lived in, all my life.”

Dr. Amod Kumar, who heads Mother NGO, nodal agency for the homeless in Delhi, thanks DUSIB CEO Chetan Sanghi for rapid execution of the porta cabin project. “The long-tem vision is transit shelters for homeless working men and migrants. But our worry is a large category which will not go to a shelter even if there is one nearby. For them you need a rescue programme followed by rehabilitation.” Social workers say this category includes drug addicts, those with mental illnesses, and some others who prefer to stay aloof.

Two porta cabins and two tent shelters line the dilapidated NDMC Park behind Bangla Sahib Gurdwara in Central Delhi. There is one shelter each for women and boys here. “The wooden floorboards are weak. So taking in more than 60 people is a risk as the floor can give way. Exhaust fans would help get rid of the stench. The blanket and mattress cleaning crew came just once. The NGO insists that all persons who reach the shelter -- whether drunk or using drugs – be taken in. These persons vomit or wet the blankets. There is no one to clean these, though we mop the floor daily,” remarks Raju, caretaker of the men's shelter being run by Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM).

Prakash (name changed), an inmate here has seen better days. Once a merchant navy radio operator, he now works as a security guard at the nearby Patel Chowk metro station. “I stay here because the rent in Delhi is unaffordable. This is a decent enough place. I am most worried about the boys here. Though rudimentary classes are conducted, if not vocationally trained, they will all go astray. There is no shortage of whitener peddlers from here to CP”, he says. (Whitener is one of the intoxicants used by street dwellers).

Rajesh Kumar, executive director of SPYM, says: “These cabins are almost like a real dormitory. The tents were claustrophobic and there was danger of fire and respiratory ailments spreading. We need more porta cabins in areas that have high-density of the homeless, especially outside Government hospitals.”

Keywords: DUSIBnight shelters

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