As part of the Joy of Giving Week, spend a night with the homeless, whose lives we know little about.

What does home mean to us? A place of rest, protection, security and unconditional acceptance with our loved ones, which we take so much for granted. But what is life for those who have no home?

We share each of the cities we live in with several thousand homeless men, women and children. Yet we know very little about their lives, and most of us care even less. Homeless people are on the streets because of extreme violence and poverty in the families and communities into which they are born, and the complete failures of all state and social protection schemes. Living ‘rough’ on the streets requires people to brave every day and night the elements, the extremes of climate police brutality, unremitting physical and sexual abuse, and the constant violations of privacy and rest. It is a violent twilight world of extreme indignity, want, abuse and crime.

Mahatma Gandhi identified with the weakest and most vulnerable in his midst, by wearing the clothes they wear, eating the food they eat, and often living among the country’s poorest residents. This year we felt that the best way to celebrate his birthday would be for middle-class residents of cities — especially the young — to spend a night of solidarity under the stars with our homeless neighbours, as part of a larger celebration of what is called the Joy of Giving Week.

The idea is to invite people to spend the night of October 1 and 2, 2013, in the open, in parks and pavements, bus stations and railway platforms, where homeless men, women and children routinely sleep. The rules of the night-out are to treat the homeless with respect and without judgment. This will not be a night of charity, but one of respectful solidarity with our homeless neighbours, to try to understand a little of the injustices and difficult circumstances of their lives, and to demand for them their rights to a life of basic human dignity.

There will be a walk among where the homeless spend their nights, with shared food, conversations, maybe some singing and finally settling down in the pavements, sidewalks or parks to sleep the night amid the homeless.

Participants will be asked to carry sleeping bags or mats and sheets, mosquito repellent and clean water, a cell phone, and small amounts of cash. They will be organised into groups of 20-25 each, and for each such group, one homeless cluster or location where homeless people routinely sleep will be allotted. They can carry home-cooked food, or buy food, which they may share respectfully with homeless persons they meet, on the condition that they also eat with them. Participants in each cluster will be encouraged also to plan some kind of a cultural programme, music or film show for the entertainment of their homeless neighbours. After this, they should sleep at a suitable portion of the homeless site.

In the run-up and on the night itself, participants will collect signatures with demands made both by homeless people and people of more privilege. The demands will include ensuring that all street children are able to enjoy their right to education, which for a homeless child is possible only through a large network of residential schools; the full implementation of Supreme Court orders on sufficient numbers and well-equipped shelters for the homeless, including special shelters for women, the sick and the aged; primary health centres and community kitchens for affordable food for the homeless like Chennai’s Amma Canteens; ration and voter identity cards; and a plan for affordable and appropriate housing.

But the demands will be not just be from the government, but more importantly, from ourselves, as citizens of such unequal, uncaring cities. All participants will sign this pledge:

‘I am deeply anguished that large numbers of children, women and men in my city or town have to sleep under the open sky, battling the seasons, physical hardships and insecurity and indignity. I believe that more privileged residents must treat them with far greater dignity and empathy, recognising that they are battling extreme violence, poverty, hunger and often loneliness. Since all people have equal right to dignity and safety in the city, I pledge to advocate for homeless people to have shelters and housing with dignity. I believe that the State must ensure for them protection, education, shelter, housing, affordable food and health care. Together, governments and the people should build more just, inclusive and caring cities and towns.’

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