A new campaign seeks to shatter the stigma attached to the homeless

It is the eve of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary. Barely 50 metres from the magnificent compounds of the Allahabad High Court, Ram Chander is preparing to sleep. His bed is a thin rag spread on the concrete pavement; his roof the sky and the shutter of a law bookshop is his wall. Next to him, a frail old woman presses her husband’s tired legs. A couple of stray dogs are rustling to find space among the row of people, who flank Ram. Each night, he shares this space with 40-50 other homeless people, including women and children.

It is easy to spot a young runaway girl as she gets off a train at Bhopal junction, vulnerable to a nexus of porters, shopkeepers and pimps in the area who recruit young runaway girls into the flesh trade.

“The porters approach her offering her a home and the hope of a job. They give her mobile numbers of prospective employers, who are actually shop owners around the station. When you are desperate, you will call one of these numbers. There is usually an autorickshaw waiting with a female pimp as soon as the girl leaves the station. Once she gets in, she is lost to the flesh trade,” says Jamuna Farkale of the National Institute for Women, Child and Youth Development who has worked with the homeless for the past eight years.

In Delhi, violence is an overarching feature of the daily struggle of the homeless, who suffer both at the hands of criminal elements and the police. “The police just lift their batons and bam! Hit anybody who is trying to catch some sleep and escape the day’s drudgery. There is no respite even at night,” says Gopal, a homeless man living on the roof of a shop at the periphery of Hanuman Mandir. The temple teems with devotees during the day and is taken over by monkeys at night.

It is a dangerous life. “The government should do something before we all die like flies,” says Shyam.

The criminalisation of the poor and the homeless must be stopped immediately, says Tarique of Koshish — Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who works with the destitute. While there are 65 shelter homes in the Capital, there is need for twice as many.

In Allahabad, a city glorified for hosting the Maha Kumbh Mela, there are around 11,000 homeless people. They survive on pavements, outside parks, at crossings and any place big enough for them to rest their heads. Despite the struggle on the streets, the homeless are averse to the idea of shifting to a shelter home. While they hope to get some form of shelter, they are not sure of their treatment at government-run shelter homes. Out of the 11 shelter homes in Allahabad, only three are functioning. However, these can accommodate only 400 people and are in a pitiable conditions. Bhopal has 10 permanent shelters run by the municipal corporation, temporary shelters that come up during winter and a few private charities. They can collectively shelter less than a 1,000 people, at the most.

“We need shelters for 100 people for every one lakh people. Bhopal has 20 lakh people and there is no accurate estimate yet on the homeless ones. Even anganwadis used to refuse homeless children. Currently, health centres attend to underage mothers by falsifying their age in the records, lest they be pulled up for child marriage in their area,” says Sanjay Singh of Bachpan.

In an attempt to shatter the stigma attached to the homeless, an ‘India Under the Stars’ campaign was organised by close to 200 voluntary organisations in several cities, where people who have a roof over their heads were asked to come and spend the night with the homeless. In a society that deeply discriminates along the lines of poverty, class, caste and community, the destitute face the deepest forms of discrimination and are ostracised from all processes of civilised life.