Surviving COVID-19: Struggles of Homeless India

The homeless are considered the most vulnerable to the virus as they don't have a space to inhibit and be safe in

Updated
Coronavirus
5 min read
(L-R) Sabita Sardar, baby, Mampi Mondal under the Gariahat flyover.
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Mampi Mondal, 19, grew up in the streets of Kolkata. Now she has a five-month-old son who might also be resigned to a life on the streets. Mondal has heard of the Coronavirus but isn’t clear on the details. She has not heard the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech either on the 21 day lockdown. On relaying the contents of his speech, she retorts, “Do we have a home?”

She resides under a flyover in the busy Gariahat area of Kolkata. After breastfeeding her son, she hands him over to her mother Sabita Sardar and leaves for work. Cradling the baby, Sardar slowly sits down on a piece of cardboard. “Mampi found a cleaning job in two local shops. Her salary will pay for the baby’s needs,” she says.

They are among the 1.7 million homeless people in India according to the Census 2011. Unofficial figures put the figure at 3 million. In response to a petition filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in 2010, the Supreme Court had asked the states to provide one homeless shelter for every 100,000 people in 62 major cities of India. Since then, the highest court of the country has intervened on behalf of the homeless and called out the states and centre for their apathy in providing shelters to the poverty-stricken in urban areas, despite availability of sufficient funds.

In 2018, the Supreme Court issued a non-binding directive that empty government buildings be converted to shelters for the homeless following the deaths of 44 homeless people in Delhi winter.
Homeless in Kolkata
Homeless in Kolkata
Photo: Puja Bhattacharjee

Shelters for the Homeless: Too Far, Too Few

The shelters offered a warm place to spend the night in the brutal cold which envelop much of North India. Amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, the shelters are theoretically the best place to seek refuge for the homeless. In the real world, however, things don’t work as expected. None of the homeless under the Gariahat flyover I spoke to seemed eager to move into a shelter. Sometime back, Sardar and her family were visited by social workers who informed them about a women’s shelter in the Kalighat area 2 kilometers away. These people find opportunities in Gariahat to make a few bucks by working odd jobs, collecting and selling paper and plastic and sometimes by begging.

Dr. Abhijit Sonawane has been treating the destitute on the streets of Pune since 2015. According to him, homeless poor people are most vulnerable to Coronavirus. Paramjeet Kaur, Director, Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA) agrees.
“The homeless are the most vulnerable as they don’t have a fixed place to inhabit which they can keep clean and maintain hygiene”
Paramjeet Kaur, Director, Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan

No one has reached out yet to educate them on the preventive measures of Coronavirus. Moreover, the advisory issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on social distancing to prevent the spread of the disease isn’t practically possible for these people. Life on the streets is hard, and women especially are vulnerable to abuse. They find safety in numbers. At night, the women huddle close to each other.

Inside The Shelters

The homeless population of West Bengal is more than 100,000 whereas the total sanctioned strength in the 41 shelters across the state is 1737. In the national capital, it’s no different. The 234 shelters across 11 districts can accommodate 18,000. Close to 50,000 are homeless in Delhi according to the Census 2011.

Emmanuel Ministries runs seven homeless shelters in Kolkata. Six of them are located in a four-story building in the Beleghata locality adjacent to a Leprosy Vagrant’s Home. Most of the inmates go out to work during the day. The six shelters can accommodate 200 people.

Tapan Pathak, 49, works eight-hour shifts as security at a private building. He has been staying in this shelter for the past six months. “I cannot afford to pay rent with my meagre salary,” he says.

The room is packed with beds pushing against each other. Social isolation is not a viable alternative at the shelters as the physical distance between them is not adequate. If somebody is infected and not exhibiting symptoms they can pass it on to others as well.

Meanwhile, the NGOs do what they can to minimize the threat. AAA has been conducting awareness sessions with the shelter inmates.

“We tell them to keep their hands clean and leave their shoes outside. The other thing we are doing is keeping soaps in the shelter bathrooms and encouraging them to wash their hands.”
Paramjeet Kaur, Director, Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan

“We also clean the door handles multiple times throughout the day,” she adds. The staff has been given sanitizers, wet wipes, and masks. Following a rigorous cleanliness routine requires an abundance of disinfectant supplies. “We asked the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board to provide us with sanitation materials because so far we have brought these through individual donations. Soon we might need more of it."

The Department of Women & Child Development and Social Welfare, Government of West Bengal, has advised Emmanuel Ministries to educate those in the shelter and take every precaution as per the guidelines.

“We have utilised material given by the government on cleanliness, how they should wash their hands and whenever they enter the home, we have kept sanitisers or soaps right at the entrance. They enter the hall after cleaning themselves.”
Shajan George, Executive Director, Emmanuel Ministries.

The Delhi government has woken up to the risk of infection among shelter seekers. They have asked the Shelter Management Agencies (SMA) to voluntarily lock down the homeless shelters.

On Saturday evening, Kaur received a text message from Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) , the nodal agency for operation and management of Night Shelter in the city of Delhi, asking her to provide food for the homeless at the shelter. She immediately set out to arrange for rations, cooking utensils, stove, and an LPG cylinder.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has allocated 10 percent of the total funding of the shelters for providing free food to the elderly and infirm. The rest have to make their own arrangements. The others leave in the morning to earn enough to feed themselves and return to the shelter.

On Sunday, the government of West Bengal announced lockdown measures across the state till March 31. Emmanuel Ministries staff has pooled in money to feed all the shelter inmates for the next week. Some staff are staying back.

As the shelters continue to admit the homeless, they are keeping a close watch on the inmates.“We are monitoring them. Even if it’s the common cold, we won’t take a risk and send them to the hospital,” says George.

George rues the predicament posed by the Coronavirus. If they keep the shelters open, they might be endangering the health of the staff. If they shut down the shelters, where will the poor go?

“When we say, ‘isolate’, all of us have homes where we can isolate ourselves. These people don’t have a home. Their 'home' is the roadside,” he says.

(The author is an independent journalist based in Kolkata, India. She covers health, politics, public policy, environment, science, art and culture. You can reach her at pujabhattach@gmail.com.)

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