At 11:30 in the night, the shelter for homeless people at Chandni Chowk is packed fully. A tiny television buzzes in the distance while people hide away from the cold under thin blankets. A dog, wide awake, guarding his master — an old handkerchief seller who sleeps next to it, scans the room periodically letting out a sharp bark when I try to go close.
Outside, it is 4 degrees. And there are dozens sleeping on pavements and under flyovers.
Sheltering the homeless has never been a priority for the Indian state. Even though of the 17 million people who live in Delhi, a quarter of a million are homeless, the state's response to the problem has been lukewarm to say the least. While the city experiences one of the worst and coldest winters of the recent past, those who do not have the resources to fight the chill are left to fend for themselves. Huddled around small fires, thousands of homeless people fight the cold wave each night without any help from the government. Already, 233 people have died of exposure in Uttar Pradesh, as news of a Rs 20 crores embezzlement scam in the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) came out this week. This blatant misappropriation of funds meant to build shelters for the poor and needy highlights both infrastructural problems as well as a complete disregard for the lives of those who have nothing.
Currently, there are 150 night shelters in Delhi, 84 temporary and 66 permanent. And yet, when one sets out to visit a few of them, it is hard to overlook the fact that a number of people continue to sleep under flyovers or around makeshift fires despite there being shelters nearby. "How can I sleep at a shelter? Where would I leave my belongings? If I take them with me they are bound to be stolen away" said Abdul who sells small toys on the streets in Chandni Chowk.
The biggest issue is the government’s financial assistance system. Even though there are different types of shelters in the city- big, small, permanent, temporary- the amount of money allocated to all remains the same.
The Old Delhi area in fact faces a number of challenges in terms of providing for the homeless. Despite remarkable efforts being made by NGOs such as Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan which looks after 12 shelters in Delhi, there are many who are left out on the pavements night after night. Women and children, as everywhere else, suffer the most for most shelters are meant only for men. "The shelter here is only for men. Where should I go with my children?" asked Najma whose barely clothed children ran around on deserted roads, unable to sit in one place in the cold. The area has all of one shelter for women close to Jama Masjid.
Within the shelters, though they might be stuffed with people, obstacles are many. Lack of finances is a massive problem each year. Essentially, the DUSIB allocates these shelters to different NGOs who then manage it using a fixed sum of money that the Board distributes. "The biggest issue is the government's financial assistance system. Even though there are different types of shelters in the city- big, small, permanent, temporary- the amount of money allocated to all remains the same. As a result, shelters catering to large number of people are left with a very small sum of money" said Paramjit Kaur, Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan. Inadequacies and shortages in supplies are then bound to affect the relief effort. "We still don't have a Jal Board connection or safe water supply at our Fatehpuri shelter" she added.
The shelter homes in the city are supposed to be small oases of warmth during Delhi's cold unforgiving winter. It is clear that it is not enough to make policies on paper where they are never actually put into practice. Ground level realities are terrible and every effort should be made to keep people within safe and warm shelters where they can actually sleep in peace.