Outside, rows of men are lying down, curled up, jostling for an extra inch of space — all under the benevolent gaze of Lord Vishnu, Shiva, Hanuman and a combative Spider-Man. The grimy walls of the 4,257 square feet night shelter, the only one for the differently abled in the capital, are as eclectic as its occupants, comprising school dropouts, a former telecom executive, rickshaw pullers, SSC aspirants and a painter.
Praveen Kumar, who painted the Hindu deities and the lone superhero, has retired for the night, having spent the day sitting atop elevated platforms to sketch on the walls. Kumar’s limbs are deformed. He is one of the occupants of the night shelter in central Delhi’s Asaf Ali Road, which does not have any disabled-friendly features, a ground check by The Indian Express revealed.
Soiled floor of toilets and broken commodes paint a picture of neglect and official apathy. Occupants, with various degrees of physical disability, are forced to share the facilities, including toilets, with able-bodied men who are also provided shelter here. There are no ramps, and not enough wheelchairs.
Activist Harsh Mander, whose three reports in 2010 had led to orders from the Supreme Court to establish homeless shelters, expressed frustration that authorities continue to treat shelters as “Victorian poorhouses”.
Mander, who was appointed as the Supreme Court’s special commissioner to look into starvation deaths, told The Indian Express, “Poorhouses were facilities where people were herded into, just to avoid the scandal of them dying on streets due to cold, without recognition of their dignity. Even today, there is no sense of engagement with occupants. The problem is compounded for those with social and biological disadvantages. As an SC commissioner, I had drawn out manuals on what is supposed to happen at these shelters. The SC had even endorsed it.”
According to the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), which oversees NGOs that manage the city’s 212-odd designated shelters, the Asaf Ali Road one can house 290 men, including 25 differently abled persons, in two cramped rooms that have no beds or proper mattresses.
Vicky, one of three caretakers, said the number goes up to 550 at times, as the centre is in an area with a high concentration of the homeless. On January 11, 314 men spent the night at the shelter, while the number was 343 a day earlier. According to a senior IMD official, the cold spell this season — between December 20 and January 2 — was longer and harsher as compared to the previous years, necessitating night shelters for thousands, if not lakhs.
The 212 night shelters set up by the Delhi government this winter include 22 tents and 114 porta cabins, with a capacity to house 17,595 people. While there are no official estimates, according to DUSIB member expert (non-official) Bipin Rai, there are around 42,000 homeless people in Delhi, going by an analysis of the 2011 Census.
An independent study by NGO Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan in 2000 had pegged the number at 52,765. A joint study by the Supreme Court Commissioner’s Office and DUSIB, along with a Mother NGO, came up with the 2,46,800 figure, according to Indu Prakash Singh, who has been working with the city’s homeless since 1999.
For the disabled
Singh, a member of the SC’s monitoring committee for the homeless, said there has always been a high concentration of physically handicapped homeless people around India Gate, necessitating shelters for them in the area. But there are none.
“This forces many of them to sleep in the open… We are fairly sure there are at least 1.50 lakh homeless people in Delhi,” Singh said. The next meeting of the SC monitoring panel is on January 17.
On the night of January 11, when the temperature dropped to 7°C, those without a roof over their head made a beeline to the Asaf Ali Road facility, managed by NGO Society for Promotion of Youth & Masses (SPYM). By 10 pm, all its rooms, meant for general category people, were filled to capacity, forcing latecomers to take over every inch of space available on the verandahs and the compound.
Two rooms earmarked for the disabled still had some space. Virender Kumar (28), who crawled over a muddy surface to use the washroom, which lacked proper lighting, said that in another two hours, rooms will be packed as around 50 differently abled people, including those who cannot see, come to the shelter each night.
Virender, a commerce graduate from Bihar’s Chhapra whose arm is half-developed, has been preparing for SSC from the shelter for a year and a half. “I didn’t plan to stay for so long, but my financial condition compels me to call this my home. Ek job mil jaaye kahin… ye soch galat hai ki viklaango mein koi kami hai (the perception that the disabled have something lacking is wrong),” he said, pointing to Praveen’s sketches. He is one of several men who are an almost permanent fixture at the shelter, Vicky, the caretaker, said.
Abhishek Bajpai (30) from Kanpur, who worked as an area sales manager with Bharti Airtel till 2016, has been staying for over a year. “I had a package of Rs 6.6 lakh per annum, with six years of experience. Later, I took a distributorship. After demonetisation, my business took a hit and I couldn’t recover. Since then, I have taken shelter here. I am still looking for a suitable job,” he said.
When contacted, DUSIB’s Rai said the Delhi government has plans to renovate the facility once winter ends. He also said he will look into shortcomings and fix responsibility. “The toilets we have installed in porta cabins this time are all disabled-friendly. We are working on ensuring that wheelchairs can be freely moved around.”
Meanwhile, with the centre already packed beyond capacity, Vicky loads a minivan with 250 blankets for the homeless who had to be “turned away”. They will spend the night at a spot near the New Delhi Railway Station.
For drug addicts
The lane leading to DUSIB’s Kotla Mubarakpur shelter for drug addicts, also managed by SPYM, goes through a garbage dump, with stray cows munching on leftovers. A group of men furtively smoke from a chillum just outside.
A counsellor at the centre, which runs a targeted intervention programme between 10 am and 5 pm, said they mainly focus on injection drug users (IDUs) to limit the possibility of them contracting HIV. The centre also has two dedicated floors for the homeless — one for drug addicts and the other for those undergoing de-addiction programmes.
“Initially, we prescribe opioid substitution therapy (OST) as part of the programme, which involves giving them prescribed drugs in a safe setting so they don’t overdose or use syringes. Later, when we develop a friendship and gain trust, we try to make them undergo a three-month rehabilitation programme,” said counsellor Ram Narayan (45).
Narayan, who has an MA in Sociology, has been associated with SPYM since 2015. The programme is funded by the National AIDS Control Organisation, he said. Since 2014, when the centre opened, around 1,800 IDUs have registered themselves, including migrants and a few who are no more.
“There are catchment areas around Kotla Mubarakpur, Sadiq Nagar, Sarai Kale Khan, Khan Market, South Extension, RK Puram. Our rescue teams mostly find users of smack, morphine, Amwil solutions and diazepam. They are mostly abandoned by families due to their drug dependence, so they end up on the street and are caught in a vortex,” Narayan said.
When The Indian Express visited the Kotla Mubarakpur shelter on January 10, many inmates were asleep, some were in a drug-induced haze, while a few kept themselves busy watching TV. The premises, including the toilets, were fairly clean. The first-floor facility had beds, while inmates on the ground floor made do with durries and mats.
Apart from the one at Kotla Mubarakpur, there are three more shelters for addicts, including one for women, at Dakshinpuri, Delhi Gate and Parda Bagh. They have a combined capacity to house 500 people. According to DUSIB data, the one at Dakshinpuri, with a capacity of 110, sees not more than 10 occupants every night.
For the ill and injured
Three shelters in the city — at Sarai Kale Khan, Geeta Ghat and Kabir Colony — take in only patients recovering from illnesses or fractures, with space for 360 occupants. The one at Sarai Kale Khan, operating out of a porta cabin, has a capacity of 50, but not more than 19 occupants per night have taken shelter over the past week.
Javed, one of the caretakers, said patients are given space based on prescriptions and medical reports. They can stay as long as they are ill, he said, adding that occupants are given tea, lunch and dinner as well as medicines on behalf of SPYM. In normal shelters, only tea, with biscuits in some cases, is given in the morning.
Madhya Pradesh resident Anil Sharma has been at the shelter for over a month. Sharma, who is undergoing treatment at Safdarjung Hospital for a broken arm, usually stays in a shelter meant for men at the other end of the interstate bus terminal. At that shelter, being manned by Vineet (28), The Indian Express met Yameen, an elderly man from Noida.
Producing an inhaler and a clutch of medicines, Yameen, struggling to breathe, claimed he was turned away from the recovery shelter a month ago. “Ab samjho yahi mera ghar hai,” he said. A few feet away lay Ravi who, between convulsions, requested the caretaker to shift him to the recovery shelter.
“General shelters witness daily fights, drunken brawls. Intoxicated men urinate on the mats and managing them is not easy,” Vineet, a resident of Varanasi, said. Like most other caretakers, he gets paid around Rs 14,000 per month.
The cost and logistics
Rai said the expense per shelter, looked after by three caretakers in as many shifts, comes to around Rs 50,000-60,000 per month. DUSIB has arranged 40,000 blankets, 2,00,000 bedsheets, 3,000 mattresses and 10,000 pillows for the homeless this season, which stretches from November to March. Tents are put up only during the winter, while permanent structures and porta cabins remain open through the year.
All seven NGOs managing the shelters have been selected afresh through a bidding process, he said.
Going by a map of night shelters prepared by DUSIB, areas around the Yamuna, such as Sarai Kale Khan, Geeta Colony and Loha Pul, are most well covered. Near AIIMS, too, seven shelters have been put up to accommodate around 700 people. But the shortfall is significant as hundreds of families continue to line the pavements outside AIIMS.
“The biggest challenge is of land. We have written to AIIMS and DDA repeatedly to provide us land to open a facility that can house at least 2,000 people. We have said we will manage the facility in terms of expenditure as well as human resources. But there has been no response,” Rai claimed.
He also suggested that many homeless people prefer to spend nights out on the streets as NGOs and philanthropists provide blankets and clothes to them. He suggested that organisations and individuals should conduct such distribution drives in shelters instead.
Mander, however, said such thinking is based on assumptions that the homeless have no agency: “The problem also is that DUSIB, the nodal agency looking after the homeless, is essentially comprised of engineers. There has to be involvement of departments like social welfare.”
Meanwhile, outside Sarai Kale Khan ISBT, Ram Kumari and her husband Rajesh, construction workers from Jhansi, huddle around a fire. They have decided against taking a room in a nearby shelter meant for families. “People drink there, they steal. We’ll make do with the fire tonight and will leave for a new construction site come morning,” Kumari said.
What the SC manual on the homeless says
* The Census of India defines ‘houseless population’ as persons who are not living in ‘census houses’. A ‘census house’ is a ‘structure with a roof’. The SC-mandated manual, ‘Shelters for the Urban Homeless — A handbook for administrators and policymakers’, prepared in 2012 states that at least a third of all shelters in the city should be devoted to homeless people with special needs and built at their location, with design and services catering to their special needs
* In the manual, those with special needs are identified as (a) single women and their dependent minor children, (b) the aged, (c) the infirm, (d) the disabled and (e) the mentally challenged
* All shelters, having space of minimum of 50 sq ft per person, should be inclusive — they should not turn away residents who are disabled, aged, ailing and infirm
* It adds that there should be a minimum of one lavatory unit (Indian style) and one bathing unit for 12 persons, with at least one western style lavatory especially for injured, sick, disabled and senior citizens
* The SC made a clear link between the right to shelter and Article 21 of the Constitution, which recognises ‘Right to Protection of Life and Personal Liberty’ as a fundamental right. The word life does not only merely mean ‘animal existence’ but also living with ‘human dignity’, the manual says