A man sips on a cup of steaming tea, adjusts a pillow, pulls the blanket closer and rubs his tired eyes. This could very well be a December evening drawing to a close at any average Delhi household. Except, the scene captured above plays out on a pavement outside Central Delhi’s Laxmi Narayan building, where tandoor operator Amar Singh has taken refuge for the night.
Singh has witnessed two extreme weather events thus far — the deluge of 1978, when he had arrived in the city, and the December of 2019, the coldest since 1901.
His words and a ground check shatter the conventional perception that the homeless don’t go to night shelters to avoid missing out on charity drives.
“We are aware that night shelters are meant for our safety. I’ve tried staying in them in the past. But spending one night there results in extreme skin irritation due to lice. I don’t beg for a living nor do I hanker after charity,” says Singh, who hails from Uttarakhand.
Two blocks away, night shelter 176, located off Asaf Ali Road, is packed. With a capacity for 290 people, the shelter — housed in a permanent building — has 326 people under its roof. It has a separate room for the differently abled. The toilets are soiled, window panes broken. Two makeshift tents, also fully occupied, are pitched in the courtyard.
The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) runs 221 night shelters — 78 in permanent buildings, 115 out of porta cabins and 28 in tents — with a sanctioned capacity to shelter 17,960 people. On December 29, the night time occupancy was 9,793.
Numbers reveal that inadequacy of space alone does not account for the rows of homeless, faceless men, women and children spending sleepless nights in the open, across the country’s national capital. The factors are many and varied.
Spending the night under a tarpaulin sheet outside the Nizamuddin Dargah are Salma and her girls aged five and seven.
“The other day, a woman was driven out of a night shelter meant for women when her five-year-old son urinated on the bed. Caretakers often target such vulnerable women; other inmates also harass them. It is better for us to avoid shelters and sleep on the pavement,” she says.
But doing so is a business fraught with deadly risks — something no one will know better than Salma. On the night of June 21, a speeding car driven by a man, who was found to be drunk, ran over four pavement dwellers — including Salma’s husband — near Nizamuddin flyover. “I’ll still manage here. But all I want is to put my two girls in a hostel. They are not safe in this environment,” she says.
Night shelter 539, especially earmarked for families near the dargah, meanwhile lies largely vacant. Only two of its 15 beds are occupied, while the adjoining shelter meant for men has far exceeded its capacity of 45.
“Our attempts to bring in pavement dwellers are greeted with abuse… We now plan to convert the shelter meant for families to a male-only one. What is the point of beds going unoccupied?” says Nihal, one of the three caretakers at the shelter who puts in eight-hour shifts.
DUSIB has, for the first time, made pillows available at each shelter, along with mattresses. The porta cabins are equipped with TVs and water filters.
Every person also gets up to two blankets, based on demand. On Sunday, shelter 235 had run out of 79 sets of mattresses and pillows by 12.30 am, forcing entrants to make do with two sets of slender blankets each and a worn out carpet to sleep on.
“Durries and blankets were changed three years ago. Naturally, there are complaints of lice. Also, there are only 18 lockers here, while the number of people taking shelter exceed 80. So there are petty thefts,” says the caretaker of a shelter at Sarai Kale Khan, on condition of anonymity.
At another Sarai Kale Khan shelter, two men have lined up to escape the cold. Caretaker Maha Chand asks for their ID cards, a pre-requisite under the laid down norms. The men don’t have any. But they aren’t turned back. Shelter 235 is their home for the long, cold night.