Too few for too many, but night shelters still beacon of warmth for homeless and jobless

At 200 odd shelters and tens of thousands of homeless in a city of about two crore people, it’s a numbers game gone awry.

Too few for too many, but night shelters still beacon of warmth for homeless and jobless
At 200 odd shelters and tens of thousands of homeless in a city of about two crore people, it's a numbers game gone awry. (Photo source: IE)

When thousands find themselves jobless and homeless in a pandemic and when a bone chilling winter sets in, the city’s night shelters are a haven to not just escape the elements but also to survive the unprecedented times.

At 200 odd shelters and tens of thousands of homeless in a city of about two crore people, it’s a numbers game gone awry. But the shelters, mostly run by the government in collaboration with NGOs and free, still play a role in providing a refuge to at least some, and are a godsend.

Like for Rajesh Kumar who lost his job with an export company in Okhla when COVID-19 struck and was forced to send his wife and two children back to their village in Uttar Pradesh. It was a shock almost too much to bear, said the 32-year-old who went from a happy existence with his family in Tughlakabad Extension in south Delhi to being jobless, homeless and alone. The ‘rain basera’, night shelter, at the Community Centre in Kalkaji helped him cope.

“Living here works very well for me. I have been working as a daily wage labourer. Staying here helps me because I can save whatever little I earn,” he said.

As icy winds lead to minimum temperatures at 4 degrees Celsius and even lower and winter tightens its grip on the region with the weather office warning on Wednesday that it could get colder, the night shelters are about a refuge from the outside world and also about warmth.

Rajesh shares his space with 10 other men. The room has mattresses on the floor, with blankets and pillows neatly arranged. There is an attached bathroom with hot water provision for the winter that can be used by all.

Shiv Kumar, who has been working as a caretaker at the centre for nearly eight years, said the occupants are provided with masks and sanitisers and the place is cleaned twice a day. “Almost all of them leave in the morning and return around 11 in the night, and they take turns to cook dinner,” the caretaker said.

A few kilometres away, at Nizamuddin, the night shelter is significantly more populated. Satyendra, a rickshaw puller, and his wife Devi have been living there for five years, and can’t be thankful enough.

The facility has two porta cabins for families and one permanent structure that is shared between single men and differently abled individuals.

Satyendra said the family came from Madhya Pradesh to make a life for themselves in the big city and wouldn’t have survived without the night shelter.

“We didn’t have any land or house back home. There was no way of making money in our village. And considering I don’t make more than Rs 100 a day, it helps to not have to pay for a roof over our heads. It is also better than living on footpaths,” Satyendra said. This year, the night shelters have also been providing two meals a day — a provision that was started by the government during the lockdown and will continue through the winter season.

The resources made available at the shelters, including food and housing, allows Asha, another occupant at the shelter near the Nizamuddin dargah, to invest her earnings from begging towards sending her 13-year-old son to school. She came to the facility two years ago after her husband, an auto driver, passed away, and while she is thankful to have a place to call home, she hopes the facilities can provide one meal in the morning too.

Answering her prayers, Dharmender Kumar of Janpahal, an NGO working with the Delhi government, said, “The government is also planning to introduce an additional meal — breakfast at the shelters.”

Janpahal runs 16 shelters, four permanent structures and 12 porta cabins. There was a huge influx of people right after the lockdown when people lost their jobs or were thrown out by their house owners, said Dharmender. And now the crowds are building up again with the temperatures plummeting.

Night shelter facilities, he said, are available 24X7 through the year and there aren’t too many who stay for more than a year. To ensure social distancing and prevent the spread of COVID-19, the capacity at their shelters have been reduced by 40 per cent. New new tents have been pitched around them to accommodate the rest, while the mattresses are placed at a distance of two feet.

Although there hasn’t been any COVID-19 positive case yet, in case of a suspected case the person concerned is sent to the hospital. Other shelters also nave their plans ready. Those showing symptoms of COVID-19 at the Nizamuddin shelter are sent to Safdarjung Hospital, said Ramzan Ali, caretaker at the facility.

The Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses has 57 shelters housing at least 2,500 people with winter essentials like mattresses and blankets made available from November 1.

Nitesh Kumar from the NGO said their rescue team has been on the move from 10 am to 4 pm everyday since the beginning of winter, looking for homeless individuals and families who might want to take shelter in the ‘rain baseras’. “We have been admitting at least 20-25 new people in our shelters everyday this season. All of them are first taken to hospitals for a thorough check up and then relocated to the shelters,” Kumar said. The number of homeless in the city varies widely.

According to the Housing and Land Rights Network, a Delhi-based charitable trust, the number of homeless in Delhi at any given point is around 150,000-200,000.

However, an official of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) claimed the numbers were not that high. “In 2014, we conducted a survey with the district magistrates and the number of homeless people in Delhi was estimated at 16,000-17,000. In fact the 200 night shelters have been offered by the government keeping in mind the occupancy levels,” said N H Sharma, director, night shelters,DUSIB.

The 200 shelters, he said, can admit 17,000 people, but the facility was availed by only 10,000 people last year. This year, in order to maintain social distancing, DUSIB has reduced the occupancy to 7,000, and made provisions for additional people to be shifted in the “water-proof and fire-proof pagoda tents” that are being pitched around these shelters. “We have already put up 40-45 tents in several shelters in areas like AIIMS, Nehru Place, ISBT, and have ready provision for 250 such tents. We will put them up according to the requirements,” Sharma said. While many occupants at these shelters are brought in by the 16 rescue teams that function across the city, Sharma said any person Is free to “simply walk-in into these shelters”.

“The shelters are completely free of cost. The staff at these facilities does ask for identity proof, but even if a homeless person does not have the documents like Aadhar card or ration card, they are admitted,” he said.

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