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Homelessness in Delhi | Uncovering the Heart-Wrenching Reality

Homelessness in Delhi: A Shocking Truth and an In-Depth Exploration of Despair and Resilience on Delhi's Streets. We speak to the homeless who reveal their everyday struggles.

By Ashutosh Dixit
New Update

For more than a year, our team embarked on a journey to capture the heart-wrenching stories of those who call the streets of Delhi their home. As we delve deeper into their lives, we uncover a harsh reality that has persisted and, in some ways, worsened over time. Homelessness, once hidden in the shadows, is now Delhi's most glaring and heartrending secret.

Noor Alam: A Struggle for Survival Amid Homelessness

Noor Alam, a homeless man in Delhi, epitomises the daily struggles faced by those living on the streets. In a heartfelt interview, he reveals the dire circumstances he endures. Noor Alam picks junk to make ends meet, but even the most basic necessities like food, water, and medical care remain elusive. When asked about seeking medical help, he says, "When I went to the hospital, they shooed me away. A nail is embedded in my foot, and it is swollen. It's right in front of you. I can't even walk."

What's particularly distressing is Noor Alam's assertion that even government-run facilities meant for the poor, like the Mohalla Clinics, turn him away due to his appearance. 

Abdul Rehman and Mohan Mathur: Uniting in Homelessness

Abdul Rehman, a minor boy, and Mohan Mathur, a senior citizen, share their experiences, emphasising that homelessness knows no age. They lack the comfort of a roof over their heads, and their daily lives are marred by hunger and thirst. Abdul Rehman, who has been homeless for two years, candidly admits, "My day passes with hunger and thirst. If someone gives me food, then I eat; otherwise, I go hungry."

Mohan Mathur, who has spent years on the streets, struggles to find even the most basic aid from the government. Despite their challenging circumstances, both Abdul Rehman and Mohan Mathur maintain a remarkable sense of resilience, finding makeshift shelters and collecting scrap to earn a meagre income.

In the bustling streets of India's capital, the destitute struggle for survival, with little hope of escaping their dire circumstances. While many organisations and individuals work tirelessly to alleviate this issue, much more needs to be done to address the root causes of homelessness and provide meaningful solutions.

Unveiling the Harsh Realities and Challenges of Life on Delhi's Streets

In a heart-wrenching account, Fatima Khatun shares her descent from a life with a semblance of security to the unforgiving streets of Delhi. She reveals that her shanty in Khusro Park was destroyed, leaving her and her family without a home. During the last lockdown, the police detained them in a school, where they faced further adversity. Fatima's younger child's health is at risk, possibly suffering from cancer or TB, but their financial constraints prevent them from seeking treatment. She recounts a tragic incident where the police abused and beat them when they called for help after her daughter was violated. 

Malti, another homeless individual in Delhi, reveals the harsh reality of her life. After her slum was destroyed, she shifted to the streets with her three children. Desperate to survive, she enrolled her children in a ladies' centre and resorted to begging on the streets to make ends meet. 

Santhosh Tiwari: A Father's Unbearable Loss

In the tragic story of Santhosh Tiwari, we learn of his unbearable pain. His 14-year-old daughter was brutally raped and murdered, leaving his family shattered. Despite filing a police report, justice eluded them, forcing Santhosh and his family to live on the streets of Delhi. He faces daily threats from thieves and criminals who target the homeless population, adding to his anguish.

Challenges of Seeking Shelter

The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) operates night shelters known as Rain Baseras for the homeless population. However, our engagement with homeless individuals revealed why many avoid seeking refuge in these shelters, even during inclement weather. Many cited concerns about poor hygiene, safety issues, and the prevalence of illicit activities like gambling and violence within these shelters.

Geeta Devi shared her experience, stating, "What will we do living in the Rain Basera? We get robbed there. Everything gets stolen there. They do gambling there. That place is a hub of illicit activities." Her sentiment was echoed by Bhim Bahadur, who emphasised the infestations and clothing damage caused by overcrowding in the shelter. Fatima Khatun recounted her traumatic experience in a night shelter, where she faced quarrels, eviction, and even an attempt to set her belongings on fire.

Inside Delhi's Shelter Homes: A Sobering Reality

Intrigued by the harrowing accounts of Delhi's homeless population, we embarked on a journey to step inside one of the city's Rain Baseras, the government-operated night shelters, to witness the living conditions firsthand. What we encountered was a disheartening scene of neglect and despair. Unhygienic bathrooms, contaminated water tanks, and an overall state of disrepair greeted us as we entered the shelter. Those residing there lamented the lack of adequate monitoring and revealed that they sought refuge out of sheer helplessness, rather than any sense of assurance or comfort.

Mohammed Sultan, a resident of Rain Basera, expressed his frustration, saying, "The trouble is that for 2 years, I don't have either a cooler or a fan. It is there for show; people come for checking, see it, and leave by saying 'Good.' The mosquitoes are also an issue for us. The toilets are always dirty. Now, tell me, what should we do? Tell us what needs to be done for this."

Shakeem added, "You can go into the toilets and see how dirty they are. There is no cleaning, nothing. There is no water there."

Notorious Reputation of Night Shelters

These night shelters have long held a notorious reputation. Past media investigations have exposed numerous scams and financial mismanagement issues associated with these establishments. Furthermore, the shelters have become a magnet for criminals and thugs, creating an atmosphere that deters those genuinely in need from seeking refuge within their walls.

A recent development saw the Delhi High Court stepping in by instructing the Chief Secretary of Delhi to conduct a comprehensive security and social audit of the DUSIB shelter homes. The aim is to ensure that only eligible individuals find shelter within their premises, addressing the long-standing issues plaguing these facilities.

Sunil Kumar Aledia, Founding Member of the Centre for Holistic Development, highlighted the inadequacy of shelter homes, stating, "Shelter homes are inadequate; they are not fully suitable for humans. The government is not taking the shelter homes' problems seriously." He recounted past instances where government action was only prompted by media reports of people suffering extreme conditions in these shelters.

Vinay Kumar, Chief Functionary of the Sadik Masih Medical Social Servant Society, emphasised the need for coordination between NULM (National Urban Livelihood Mission) and the government to improve the quality of shelter homes. He suggested that with proper initiative and collaboration, multi-floored shelters could be established to accommodate more individuals.

Discrimination and Dehumanisation: The Plight of the Homeless

The homeless population in Delhi faces a myriad of additional challenges. They frequently endure the indignity of being shooed away from public spaces and encounter difficulties accessing essential services. Shockingly, many are not welcomed at Mohalla clinics, which are meant to serve all residents. Heartbreakingly, some shared their experiences of being turned away from government hospitals when in dire need of medical treatment.

Mohammed Kalam, who suffered from a wound infested with worms, recounted his ordeal, stating, "I went to a hospital at first, and I also have a consultation slip. They told me to leave and seek treatment elsewhere; they shooed me away." This vulnerable community is often subjected to discrimination and dehumanisation, denied the basic treatment and respect that every human being deserves.

The Talents Hidden in Homelessness

As our team delved into the streets of Delhi, documenting the year-long saga of homelessness, a poignant realisation emerged. Many of the homeless individuals we encountered were not without talent or skill; they were victims of unfortunate circumstances. Mohammed Arif, a proud artist who had received an award from former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, exemplifies this truth. His story mirrors those of countless others, individuals who now find themselves battling for their most basic needs—food and water—despite their potential and talents.

Mohammed Arif shared his journey, saying, "I come from a very respectable household. In Okhla, every kid knows me. I am an artist specialising in Tibetan art. I had my shop in Kashmir for 22 years. However, due to the conflicts in Kashmir, I had to stop working there. I have received many awards, including one from Indira Gandhi in 1982, although it has been stolen now."

Yearning for Opportunity and Purpose

Beyond the immediate necessity of shelter, our interactions with the homeless community unveiled a deeper yearning—they sought opportunity and a sense of purpose. It became clear that what they truly desired was a chance, a guiding light toward a better path. The overwhelming sentiment among those we engaged with was a profound desire to work, acquire valuable skills, and earn their livelihood through honest toil. All they asked for was an opportunity—a fair shot and a new beginning. In their voices, we heard a plea to society and the government, a plea for that one chance to rebuild their lives.

Suhail Saifi, President of the Sofia Educational and Welfare Society, emphasised the importance of motivating and counselling homeless individuals to help them mobilise and start working to earn a living. He highlighted that many want to work but lack guidance and knowledge.

Funding Woes and Their Impact on Homelessness

According to the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), it has established 198 night shelters in Delhi, each operated by various NGOs. However, a concerning issue that came to light during our reportage is that these NGOs do not receive consistent and timely funding. This persistent delay in payments has had a detrimental effect on the management of the shelter homes, ultimately impacting the quality of services provided to the homeless population.

Dr. Indu Prakash Singh, a member of the State Level Shelter Monitoring Committee, voiced his concerns, stating, "The DUSIB officials who are in charge of keeping a watch are not doing their work. Every month DUSIB is supposed to pay the shelter managers but they have not been paid for over 2 years. If they are not paid for 1 or 2 years, how will they survive in this city without payment?"

Blame Game Over Funding Delays

In an attempt to address the issue of non-payment and payment delays to NGOs, we reached out to DUSIB. Surprisingly, a DUSIB official shifted the blame onto the NGOs, stating that the delays were primarily caused by the NGOs themselves due to their failure to submit invoices in a timely manner.

Bipin Rai, Member - Expert of DUSIB, addressed the issue, saying, "The NGOs have submitted bills after 9 months to a year. The delay is from both sides. You can't just blame one side for a year and a half delay."

In a city of contrasts, where prosperity and destitution coexist, the plight of Delhi's homeless serves as an urgent call to action for our shared duty. Beyond the immediate struggles for shelter, food, and dignity, what we have uncovered is a resilient spirit yearning for opportunity and a chance to rebuild their lives. The government’s first priority must be to protect and uplift those who find themselves at the very margins of our society. A government that overlooks the most vulnerable does the greatest disservice to its people.