Night shelter for homeless remains locked; corporation plans to use it for migrant labourers with outside support from NGO

Ever since it was ‘inaugurated’, a whitewashed concrete building has remained shut at Kudhupapallam, a small slum near Birds Road, Cantonment. While residents have varying ideas about what the one-storey structure might be or why it was built, a tattered banner declares it to be Tiruchi’s only night shelter for the homeless. The homeless, as defined by the Census of India, are those who do not live in a house with a roof. While the Supreme Court, in 2010, directed all city corporations to establish shelters for the urban homeless, a status report submitted by SC-appointed commissioners in January 2012, registered that the stipulations were not met.

One of the primary difficulties in identifying homeless persons is what the National Advisory Council (NAC) calls their “invisibility.” Hence, the SC directed corporations to identify such people and provide them with basic amenities especially during adverse weather conditions.

“The corporation established one such shelter on March 4, 2011 to accommodate 54 beggars and nomads,” said V.P. Thandapani, Corporation Commissioner, “but all of them left subsequently.” The shelter, according to him, can house a maximum of 25 persons; has five rooms, toilets, water facility and electricity.

However, residents of Kudhupapallam cannot recall a time when the shelter was in use. “It has been locked ever since it was inaugurated by the Collector and now the kids in the area use it as a playground,” said Illanjiam, who has been living in the area for the past 12 years.

According to the SC directive issued on January 20, 2010, State governments and UTs are required to provide a shelter to the homeless with a capacity of housing 100 homeless people for every lakh of population. Further, governments were directed to provide basic amenities like bed rolls, potable drinking water, primary health care facilities and recreational facilities among other things.

However, the SC commissioners’ status report found that out of the nine such shelters Tiruchi required, only one night shelter was set up. “The directives stipulate that special shelters have to be set up for women, mentally challenged and physically challenged persons; that they should operate throughout the day and around the year, rather than be seasonal shelters,” says S. Martin, human rights activist and advocate.

The SC Commissioners’ report found that the situation prevailed throughout Tamil Nadu, which requires 116 shelters but has only 22 night shelters.

Nearly a year later, the city corporation is still in planning mode: “In another few months, we plan to conduct an enumeration of the homeless, provide them information about the facility at Cantonment, and give them counselling,” said Mr. Thandapani. Further, he added that the shelter would be run with outside support from a local NGO and would cater to only migrant labourers. “We are planning to make it a shelter for migrant labourers because they may not be willing to share with beggars and mentally challenged.”

“Article 21 of the Constitution already mandates the Right to Life and in an ideal situation, the government should strive to provide for the homeless without any such directives from the Supreme Court,” said Mr. Martin.