Degrees of homelessness

I TALKED to a homeless woman in New York last week. She was White and middle-aged. She was sitting in the doorway of one of the many glittering stores in mid-town Manhattan asking anyone who passed by for spare change. I stopped and gave her some change. And then asked her why she was on the street.

Her story had many holes in it. She was probably on drugs and she informed me that she and the man with her had been in and out of jail. Perhaps, I should have been like other New Yorkers and should have walked past without stopping. Yet, the sight of this man and woman on the streets of the largest and richest city in America reminded me of the unsolved problem of shelter not just in our countries but around the world.

Of course, homelessness has so many different faces. Just a stones throw away from where this man and woman sat were two homeless women from Mumbai. In the eyes of the world they would be considered homeless because they live on the pavement. But in their own perception, their lean-to shelter is their home, and has been a home for several decades.

Rehmat and Shahnaz from Mahila Milan in Mumbai had come to New York to participate in a conference on housing and shelter at the United Nations. With other homeless people from different countries, they had constructed a model house with wood and cloth instead of brick and mortar. It took several days of hard labour to assemble. But it was a statement from these women and their friends that they have a dream, a concrete concept of the house they want if only governments would recognise their right to secure tenure. In the grand entrance lobby of the United Nations, such a structure had never before been assembled.

Yet, the space given for the model house was not matched by a space for those who built it to be heard in the formal discussions. These were held in the basement of the U.N. building on issues that are central to the concerns of women like Rehmat and Shahnaz, and even to the woman on the New York street. Yet, the structure of the meetings could not make space for the voices of these women to be heard. The officials who came to the meeting left poorer for having missed the chance to hear directly from people who have made homes out of shelters considered barely adequate for human beings.

Seeing Rehmat and Shahnaz in the massive lobby of the U.N. building, I wondered what that building would have looked like if women like them had been consulted on its shape and size. At present it is imposing, but also intimidating. It is also disempowering. It seems to reduce everyone who enters its portals. This might make people feel more equal. But if equality means lowering everyone's stature, then it is not a very sound approach.

There are millions of poor people living in cities across the world. They are in greater numbers and more visible in the developing world. But they also exist in the rich countries. Only the concept of who and what is considered homeless varies.

In India, women like Rehmat would not regard themselves as homeless. She has lived in a small hut attached to a wall facing the Khatau mills in Byculla. For years this has been her home.

She knows all her neighbours; they have fought together to prevent their homes from being demolished. There are times they did not succeed. But they rebuilt their structures. And regardless of the space they have, they believe they have a home.

But Rehmat does not want to continue living on a pavement. She too wants a house which is secure and safe, where there is more space, where she has running water, where there is a toilet, where she and her family can lead a life of dignity. But the difference between Rehmat and other women is that she is not waiting until she gets all this. She is already dreaming, planning, helping others to build their homes.

In contrast to her story were women from housing rights groups from across the United States. They spoke of problems which seemed remote from Rehmat's reality. In the U.S. a poor person can rent an apartment in a public housing block. The waiting list is long but eventually you can get a place. The rent you pay is determined as a percentage of what you earn. Even if some of this housing is poor quality, at least it gives people a roof over their heads.

But the point of reference for the urban poor in America is not women like Rehmat but how the rest of American society lives. And by those standards, their conditions are terrible. Some of the buildings are considered in such bad shape, that the Government is pulling them down. It has not even considered the option of giving people living in these dilapidated structures a chance to come up with an alternative plan. Perhaps people will not devise an alternative because they have never thought about it. But if these communities met the homeless from Mumbai or South Africa, perhaps they would get some ideas of what they could do.

But ultimately, the issue is one of space not just in terms of square feet but the space that governments, institutions, and even places like the U.N. give to poor people. At the moment, such space is highly restricted if it exists at all. Last week, the U. N. had the chance to create a space. It did to some extent but not enough to make a difference.


E-mail the writer at ksharma@vsnl.com