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Why Homeless Women In Delhi Are Choosing Pavements Over Govt’s Night Shelters

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She has the option to stay at a night shelter next door, but Kamala Bajrangi prefers to brave out the Delhi Winter on the pavement instead. A toy seller by day, the middle aged woman hates the restrictions of mobility life in the shelter demands. The ‘dry rotis’ served at the shelter aren’t a huge draw either.

“Bade, bade makaan ban gaye. Hamein kehte hain, ‘Jaao rain basere me jaao. Jaao toilet me jaao’ (Huge buildings have come up and to us they say, ‘Go to the night shelter. Go to the toilet’),” a fuming Bajrangi, who sleeps on the pavement outside Hanuman Mandir at Connaught Place told me.

A homeless woman sitting with a child in her lap under a flyover at night.
Through chance, circumstance or compulsion, thousands are being forced to live on the street – under flyovers, over bridges, footpaths. Photo credit: Abhishek Jha

Bajrangi isn’t the lone woman in the city who chooses to sleep on the pavement leaving the security of a shelter. Through chance, circumstance or compulsion, thousands like her are being forced to live on the street – under flyovers, over bridges, footpaths – in the freezing Delhi winter.

Official estimates for the number of homeless in the city vary extremely. While the Supreme Court Commissioner’s Office pegged it at over 2 lakh in 2011, the census estimated it as 46,724 in the same year. There are 261 night shelters operating in Delhi this winter, which include 21 meant solely for women. Some of these are permanent buildings, some are portable buildings (called Porta Cabins), some are located in subways, and temporary tents too are being set up by the government to help the homeless in the winter. While the shelters have the capacity to accommodate over 21,000 people, daily occupancy reports show that only a third of that capacity is being used. On the night of December 4, for instance, only 510 women took to the 21 women shelters, which have a capacity to accommodate 1204 women.

While the Delhi government has been taking steps to ensure nobody sleeps in the open in the cold Delhi winter, the stories of the city’s homeless women present a different picture. They are not only reflective of a concern that the government only remembers during winters but the harsh circumstances the women face throughout the year. The cold, for them, is just an added inconvenience.

A case in point is Garima Singh*, who lives with her son just outside Hanuman Mandir. Her belongings propped against a police barricade, she sits talking with a couple of other families who have arranged their mattresses and blankets around the barricade. She asks me whether talking to me is going to solve anything for her, but then invites me to sit down to talk.

Singh’s position is unique, but not unusual. She wasn’t always homeless. She had a home and a family. Then she underwent a surgery that disabled her and made her nearly immobile. She lost her savings, and her son was forced to stop working to look after her. For an hour or two, her son goes out to work for wages but on most days they survive on alms and donations.

“Look at this! Can one spend the winter under this blanket? Isn’t this a sack?”she asks, showing me a thin blanket that someone donated. She says she has no hope from the government. Her relatives, the mother-son duo tell me, are capable of helping them, but for the past two years they haven’t told them about their whereabouts because they feel ashamed about their circumstances. “What will I say? That I live outside a temple?” Singh asks.

The government also runs rescue teams to bring the homeless on the street to the shelters and Singh too was taken to the Bangla Sahib shelter last winter. “They would come to ask me every other day whether I needed a shelter. I said, ‘Listen, I cannot get up. This is my son and he helps me with ablutions. Let us use the cabin,” she says. But the cabins were occupied already and she had to live outside.

A tent build by the government.
The number of shelters built by the government has increased from 46 in 2008 to 262 this year . Photo credit: Abhishek Jha

Singh’s story repeats itself over and over again at over-bridges, the flyovers, the pavements, the subways – the city’s dark underbelly. The number of shelters built by the government has increased from 46 in 2008 to 262 this year and now clinics too are being built near these shelters but there still are thousands of women living outside the margins.

Under flyovers between Hauz Khas metro station and Munirka, for instance, live different kind of hawkers. The tattered mattress on the concrete is their bed and the flyover is their roof. Some surround themselves with unused, broken furniture and cardboard as an added protection.

Maya’s first response on seeing me under the flyover is to plead that they don’t commit crimes and that they are honest people. The police are a bigger threat to them than the cold.

On the other side of the flyover, divided just by an intersection, there is a large shelter, but the family says they can’t go there because they don’t get along with the other group. That they can’t take their belongings with them is a more probable reason.

“It is because of these belongings that we have built these jhuggis,” says Manju Devi, who stays with her family under under a flyover near the Akshardham metro station, surrounded by grass several feet tall.

“We have belongings, pots and pans. They don’t let us take those inside. Where will we go then?” Manju Devi’s husband adds when she explains that they don’t get to cook food inside the shelter. An air-conditioned Rajdhani Express whizzes past the make-shift homes of the people when I reach there. As they live without electricity, Devi worries about snakes and insects biting them.

“When there are snakes or insects, when our children have trouble sleeping, then we go to the shelter,” she tells me. A portacabin for women is a stone’s throw away from where these families live but they don’t go there. They only use the toilet outside the shelter regularly.

“It is being built. It is not yet complete. I spent the entire winter here listening to these excuses. Spent the entire summer right here. Even in the rain sometimes somebody would hold an umbrella and I would keep lying here,” Garima Singh told me at the Hanuman Mandir. Although the government machinery wakes up during the winter, for those like her, every season brings problems related to homelessness.

Instead of setting seasonal shelters, the government would do well to think of a concrete policy to deal with the issue, keeping in mind the practical realities of those living on the streets. The women, though, have no hope that it will ever happen.

For women like Manju Devi, who has been homeless since she moved to Delhi in 2003, nothing seems to have moved over the course of the decade. As Bajrangi, whom I met at the Hanuman Mandir, says resignedly, “So many have lived here and so many have died”.

*Name changed on request.

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