As he unveiled mohalla clinics attached to three night shelters on Friday, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said night shelters should be renamed as they provide a roof to the needy 24×7, and not just at night. He said his government would work towards giving the poor a life of dignity, and that he had not forgotten them after polls.
Just two days earlier, newly-appointed Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari had said the first thing on his to-do list was trying to ensure night shelters for the homeless. He also issued an appeal to Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung in this regard.
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The issue of night shelters for the homeless, especially during winters, has had the attention of successive governments, the opposition and the higher judiciary for many years. Consequently, the number of shelters has increased from 46 in 2008-09 to 262 in 2016.
Issues of women’s safety, drug addiction and sanitation have also mounted simultaneously, but the government has been engaging with NGOs to address that.
The previous Congress government, the L-G and the AAP government have all instructed the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) to make adequate arrangements to house the poor.
DUSIB board member Bipin Rai said that with 262 shelters — permanent, tents, subways and recovery centres — in place, the government is prepared to house 21,000 people. He said at least 13,000- 14,000 people are expected this year.
After December 10, he said, a survey will be undertaken to assess the need for more shelters in the city.
There are other plans as well: Kejriwal on Friday spoke of the need for de-addiction centres at shelters, and making sure tea and breakfast is served to inhabitants.
While the administration is working overtime to set up the shelters, it has, in the past, needed a push from the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court, which took up the issue of night shelters and deaths of homeless people in the city in a suo motu PIL filed after the alleged demolition of a shelter at Pusa Road in December 2009.
The Supreme Court had already been looking into the issue in a PIL initiated in 2001 by the NGO, People’s Union for Civil Liberties. In January 2010, the court had noted that there were 46 shelters during the winter of 2008-09, but the number had reduced to 33 by December 2009.
Between January and April 2010, both the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court passed various orders on the issue.
In January 2010, the bench headed by the then Delhi High Court Chief Justice A P Shah directed the Chief Secretary to create a short-term action plan to improve the shelters. The bench had noted that “any civilised society, especially in modern times, is required to take care of all of its citizens. No citizen should have to die because he or she is poor and does not have a roof over his or her head and because of cold or heat and other weather conditions. It is the prime responsibility of the State to provide shelter for the homeless”.
At the time, Miloon Kothari, former UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, had assisted the court by giving suggestions, including use of vacant government buildings, community centres and other unused premises as homeless shelters, and creating permanent night shelters instead of temporary ones during winters.
In 2011, the bench directed the DUSIB to ensure toilets, drinking water, fans and light in shelters as they were the “most essential requirement” to maintain basic human rights of people using the shelters.
After the HC rap, DUSIB increased the number of shelters to 118 by December 2011. A joint apex advisory committee to monitor the shelters was set up in 2012 under orders of the court.
Orders were passed by a separate bench of the Delhi High Court to provide medical checkups, especially at shelters meant for women and children, after a separate PIL was filed by an NGO regarding the death of a baby due to lack of medical facilities.
In December 2014, the bench suggested use of underground parkings, subways and other buildings “put to other uses during the day” to be used as temporary night shelters during winter, and asked the DUSIB to look into the issue.
The PIL on night shelters was finally disposed of by the court in August 2015.