Thermal scanners at a night shelter in Sarai Kale Khan, mask distribution at one near AIIMS, and instructions to maintain social distancing at portacabins for the homeless in Kashmere Gate. As temperature drops and Covid cases rise in the national capital, night shelters — temporary homes to thousands — are gearing up for a tough winter ahead.
At the Kashmere Gate night shelter, set up by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), there are four porta-cabins to accommodate 120-150 men each. Says caretaker Khushi Chand, “Before the pandemic, we could accommodate 400 men per day but now we can only use half the beds and space available to us because we also have to ensure that people don’t get infected.”
Around 8 pm, as men returned to the shelter after work, volunteers instruct them to maintain distance while standing in a queue at the entrance. “Mask peheniye, doori banaye rakhe,” they say. Caretakers say that those who reach after 10 pm are shifted to shelter homes in South Delhi. “DUSIB will make two more porta cabins here as the number of people goes up a lot in December every year,” says Chand.
As the night chill sets it post-dinner, Ajay (27), who works at a restaurant in Chandni Chowk, says, “I sleep here daily and now there is a lot of space because of Covid — unlike earlier when there would be too many people. I leave for work in the morning and return by 7 pm. They’ve given us masks and soap so we don’t get the virus… I am worried about December when it will get colder and more people will come. I don’t want to get infected — I’m the sole breadwinner and send money back home in Bihar.” Ajay’s worry resonates with several men across the three shelter homes The Indian Express visited.
DUSIB runs 300 night shelters in Delhi. The board’s advisor, Bipin Rai, says, “We will set up 250 more tents and cabins to accommodate more people, while keeping the Covid situation in mind.”
At the Sarai Kale Khan shelter home, caretakers stand with thermal scanners ready as the evening sets in. Each person is stopped, his temperature checked, and only then is he allowed in. In case of fever, the person is tested and isolated in another room. If the person tests positive, he/she is shifted to a quarantine center. The same exercise is repeated in the morning before they leave for work.
Moni (38), a tiffin box seller, says, “I’ve been living here with my family for over a year, but we’ve been concerned ever since the virus. Not that we can afford to rent a house. Thankfully there is a restriction on how many people can stay here.”
Last month, when Moni had fever at the night shelter, he got tested. “The result came back negative. Every day, we get screened here.” The Sarai Kale Khan night shelter also houses people injured in road accidents. P K Gagan, a caretaker, says most patients are tested for Covid before they are sent to the shelter. “We send them back to the hospital if they have fever because we can’t let others get infected. As of now, we have 19 people… We use hydrochloride solution to sanitise rooms and cabins.”
At the night shelter near AIIMS, only 10 men occupy the massive space late Saturday night. Dinner has been served, quilts are ready and the lack of people has meant everyone has a mattress. Says the caretaker: “Most beds are vacant because everyone has gone back home for Diwali or Chhatth… They will come back soon.”
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