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Delhi's homeless prefer freezing streets to 'dirty, unsafe' shelters

Freezing Delhi is experiencing one of its coldest nights in decades.

Fauzia, a lean woman, wearing just one layer of clothing, settles barefoot on a dirty mat. With her hands trembling, she feeds Aliya, her ten month old daughter with stale bread dipped in water. Aliya throws a tantrum. Fauzia slaps her twice. She throws the baby on to a mat where three of her siblings are already in deep slumber, oblivious to their surroundings.

Fauzia’s younger sister, Shaheen, and her mother who are awoken by the commotion abuse her, using cuss words. To go back to sleep, they struggle to cover their numb bodies with sheets of blue plastic, folded many times over- their only protection from the January chill.


Homeless people warm themselves by a fire at an open space on a cold winter morning in the old quarters of Delhi: Reuters

The six are spending the night in the open just meters away from Jama Masjid’s Gate number 3, despite the fact that a night shelter for the homeless is located some twenty steps from the spot where they are braving the winter. “We are fine here. Out belongings would get stolen in that shelter,” says Fauzia. “I know a woman whose baby was taken away from one such shelter.”

There are 150 temporary and permanent shelters in the national capital, a number enough to accommodate half of the city’s homeless population. But a significant number of homeless people prefer to spend nights on the pavements, thereby defeating the very purpose for which these shelters have been created.

Fauzia and her family, for instance, would not approach a shelter as they believe they would get robbed there.

For others, lack of information prevents them from taking refuge in a shelter.

A few yards from a temporary night shelter near Kashmere Gate at ISBT, three cycle- rickshaw pullers are playing cards on a footpath, in street- light. “No, no. It is not meant for us,” says Abdul Ghaffar, one of the men, when asked if he would retire in the nearby night shelter. But has he ever been there? “Why would I go there saab when it not for me,” says Ghaffar, asserting that he knows the location of at least three night shelters but he does not go to either of them as they are meant for people who don’t work for a living.

“I am not like them. I earn. I spend this money on my daily meals and rent of the rickshaw.” On further enquiry, Ghaffar says he has been asked not to night shelters as they are meant only for Bangladeshis.

Lack of hygiene is another reason often cited as an argument against using shelters. An assessment of permanent shelters in Delhi done by Koshish- a field action project of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, found hygiene and cleanliness levels as below satisfactory.

Part of the daily income of Ghaffar’s group goes into hiring blankets. One blanket costs Rs 15 a night. However, Ram Gopal, Ghaffar’s friend and a fellow rickshaw- puller says this is a price they pay for hygiene, which, is missing in night shelters. “Each night, I use the same blanket. There, in the night shelter, I would have to use the blankets which would have tried by all kinds of people.”

Dr Amod Kumar of Mother NGO which coordinates the functioning of Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board night shelters, says, that despite the improved quality and hygiene of these shelters, there are people who are averse to the idea of spending nights in them. “These are social problems with no quick fix solutions. Lot of them don’t come to shelters as they want to remain with families. Shelters are marked for males, or females and children," he said.

What stands out here, is that simply building shelters will not save lives in freezing Delhi. The government and NGOs which operate them also have to assure the homeless that they are a viable and safe alternative to braving the cold out in the streets.

Caretakers at most of the shelters say that mobilising the community and calling people like Fauzia and Abdul Ghaffar to the shelters is not part of their job. It is attitudes like this that will have to change before the homeless can sleep peacefully in a night shelter.