Every winter, the dipping mercury exposes the vulnerability of those living on the streets in the Capital. Reports of homeless people dying are usually followed by the Delhi government swinging into action and announcing new initiatives, besides strengthening existing ones.
The same cycle is repeated during peak summer.
This year, a homeless man died even before peak winter set in. Last week, Manoj, a labourer at Azad Market, was bludgeoned to death by another homeless man after they allegedly got into a fight over space to sleep near the Iron Bridge in Kishanganj.
Not an option
For many like Manoj, the night shelters run by the Delhi government at 261 locations with a capacity of 21,444 are not really an option. According to the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), a 2014 survey put the number of homeless people at 16,000. Activists, however, peg the number at much higher.
Further, the Delhi government had recently announced that it would start distributing food at 10 night shelters.
At Kashmere Gate, where many shelter homes are located, many people would rather sleep in the open than spend a night inside the shelters, which don’t allow smoking. Those found drunk or under the influence of drugs are not allowed inside as well. For many who live out in the open, these reasons make the shelters seem inconvenient.
Avoiding shelter homes
Speaking to The Hindu recently, many homeless people said they felt safer in the small groups they had formed out on the streets.
The unity not only keeps them safe in case of a conflict, but also make them feel secure about their belongings. Inside the shelter homes, they are often separated. According to them, there are strong gangs operating inside the shelters that beat them up at the slightest pretext.
Then there are those who are forced to spend their nights outside because they need to stay near their belongings such as rickshaws or carts. Some, meanwhile, said they simply couldn’t stand bedbugs in the shelter homes, or the fact that the lights are kept on through the night.
A step up
And then there are those who are thankful for the shelters. The night shelter at Sarai Kale Khan, for instance, has given many families, who spent years living under a flyover, a place to rest. Two porta-cabins and a tent are a source of comfort to residents who told The Hindu last week that their lives had changed for the better since the shelter came up.
While the porta-cabins were kept clean, the residents complained of the struggle to keep toilets clean.
Located next to a busy bus stop and near a railway station, the toilets of the night shelter are used by passengers alighting there.
When The Hindu visited, the toilets were locked, but the caretakers insisted it was not due to lack of water or cleanliness.
Another issue faced by residents of the shelter, particularly women and girls, was the behaviour of auto-rickshaw drivers who wait along the road for passengers. Several women at the shelter complained of being at the receiving end of lewd comments.
Their problems range in variety and complexity, but for the homeless in Delhi the winter is just another reminder of their precarious situation.