Homeless prefer sidewalks to govt shelters in Delhi

New Delhi: The wrath of the cold wave currently gripping the nation`s capital has been particularly harsh on some 60,000 homeless who continue to live in sub-human conditions notwithstanding repeated orders of the Supreme Court that they be looked after.

Grossly inadequate in numbers and lacking basic facilities, the shelters force the homeless to prefer the unsafe sidewalks of Delhi. Throngs of homeless remain huddled under flyovers and hunched inside plastic tents, the homeless seem to have given the shelter homes a cold shoulder.

"I have lost my shoes and had my money stolen on many occasions. These incidents are common at night shelters," says 25-year-old Sita, a homeless.

One of the most important reasons, cited by the homeless, for avoiding shelter homes is lack of proper hygiene.

"The blankets provided at these shelters are unwashed and smelly. We do not know who slept on those bedrolls before us and the blankets are usually full of lice, bedbugs and other ticks," says a homeless who stays on a footpath.

Currently the city administration runs 135 night-shelters with a total capacity of around 13,000 people but shortage of shelters and lack of basic amenities like water and sanitation in existing ones are forcing the homeless to stay put on unsafe sidewalks and under the flyovers.

For the past three years the Supreme Court has been passing periodical directives to the authorities across the country including Delhi to provide night shelter facilities to the homeless during winter.

On Monday last the apex court pulled up the authorities for failing to provide shelters to homeless and directed them to "preserve and protect" the lives of homeless people by providing them roofs with all necessary facilities.

The city government claims that it has constructed adequate number of night shelters. However, the occupancy rate in the facilities has been very low due a number of reasons like lack of basic amenities, fear of theft and poor hygiene.

Admitting certain shortcomings, CEO of Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) Chetan Sanghi claimed Delhi government has improved infrastructure at most of the 135 shelters and even provided locker facilities in some of them.

"The Supreme Court order is not Delhi specific as the matter involves a number of states. We have adequate number of night shelters and we are in the process of setting up more," Sanghi said. The DUSIB has been tasked to look after the shelters as well as construct new ones as per requirement.

Sanghi said following complaints of theft at some of the shelters, government has asked police to increase security in and around the facilities.

According to Dr Deepak Gupta, diseases like fungal infections, tuberculosis and other respiratory infections are quite common in homeless people. "They also carry parasites and pass it on to one another."

Apparently drug addiction is also quite rampant among a section of the homeless living on the streets and they usually do not prefer to live in a shelter for the fear of losing privacy.

"I have seen people selling the clothes just to get drugs," says Raj Kumar, a street-dweller. "Once they get accustomed to living a carefree life, the idea of losing privacy in shelter homes is not very attractive to them," he says.

Another reason for people avoiding shelters is that there are separate camps for men and women."Segregation of families is not acceptable to homeless people and that is why we see so many mothers sleeping with their children on the sidewalks," says activist Bharat Dogra.

For those with mobility limitations or other illnesses, shelter homes are not very helpful either. Pinky, an amputee vagrant left a women`s shelter because she was "insulted, beaten and eventually thrown out."

The Supreme court in its order last week had asked the Joint Apex Advisory Committee, comprising the members of the NGOs and Delhi government officials, looking into the issues related to homeless people, to take action on the basis of its report to "ensure" that relief reaches helpless people "without any loss of time".

The court issued the directives after perusing the report of the inspection of the night shelters carried out by the court-appointed commissioners and officials of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) between January 9 to 12.