Will Delhi’s homeless get a bed and blanket tonight?

January 3rd, 2009 - 2:45 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Jan 3 (IANS) As the day draws to an end and the mercury dips, the promise of a warm blanket and a safe haven from the chilly winter wind drives the capital’s homeless towards night shelters.While some manage to reach on time and secure a warm corner inside the few shelters or temporary makeshift tents, many huddle outside with blankets.

Ashraf, a cycle-rickshaw puller who arrived in the city three years ago from a small town near Lucknow in search of a job, had secured a corner inside the shelter set up in Nizammudin by the Delhi government and managed by NGO Ashray Adhikar Abhiyaan (AAA) with support from ActionAid.

“I don’t know how long I will be fortunate - as the temperature drops, the hope of a shelter is pushed further ; there is so much of a rush - last year I ended up spending half the nights outside with just a blanket,” Ashraf said.

“The mad rush for the shelters will become evident in the coming days.”

Bundled in a blanket, Sushila’s eyes were weary as she sat on the wooden plank that was her bed at the shelter.

“I have been coming here for the past seven days and managed to get a good place and blanket,” said Sushila, a 35-year-old physically challenged widow.

“I am on the records now - I stay here during most of the day; so it will not be a problem later for me to get in,” she said.

She looked around at the dozen children and 30-odd women. A slight smile broke out as she said: “Here I am not alone - they become my family.”

Like Sushila, there are several others here - homeless, struggling to make it from one day to the next.

The capital has 25 shelters of which 17 are permanent. The others have been set up in community centres or school buildings for the winter. Then there are 20 tents put up in “13 high requirement areas”.

These numbers can in no way match the needs of the estimated 200,000 homeless people in Delhi. The situation gets critical when the thermometer dips below five degrees Celsius, as it did on the first night of the new year.

“The number of homeless people in Delhi has doubled since 2000, while there is just a slight increase in the number of shelters,” head of ActionAid’s AAA initiative Paramjit Kaur told IANS.

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) runs 10 of the 17 permanent night shelters. It can accommodate 3,000 people. AAA manages the other seven.

The MCD charges Rs.6 per head for using these night shelters, but during the peak winter months of January and February anyone can use the facilities for free, as long as he or she can get in.

Women and children below 16 do not have to pay the Rs.6.

“There are thousands of homeless people in areas like Jhandewalan, Nizamuddin, Kalkaji, Jama Masjid, Fountain Chowk and Jamuna Bazaar,” Kaur added.

On an average around 150 people use each shelter each night. However, the shelter at Fatehpuri near Old Delhi railway station faces the mammoth task of hosting up to 25,000 people each night.

“Here the people include acutely sick people, destitute, women and children. They need drinking water and medical facilities,” said Sanjay Kumar, executive director of AAA.

When the number of people in the shelters exceeds the capacity, organisers struggle to keep the places clean, and sometimes fail. People end up having to share blankets, clothes, the occasional food and the little water available.

However, the situation has improved in the past two years, Kumar said.

“The government has begun to accept this problem. The past year has seen investments in hygiene as well as contribution of 3,000 thick mattresses for the shelters from the municipal authority as well as the Delhi government’s revenue department,” Kaur said.

At each shelter, two caretakers work round the clock.

“They keep records and give medical attention to whoever needs it. Children at this time are specially vulnerable to infections; so special focus is given to them, their mothers and the elderly also,” Kumar added.

(Shweta Srinivasan can be contacted at Shweta.s@ians.in)

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