If Census 2001 figures are anything to go by, India has about two million homeless people. But that number in itself is under-reported, given the lacunae in enumeration procedures. Surveys by various non-government agencies and even certain autonomous branches of government bodies reveal that this figure is at odds with the ground situation.

Not only are there gaping holes in the procedures followed for gathering statistics concerning the homeless, but the official definition of the word also leaves much to be desired. Negative public perceptions about the homeless, created by media portrayals, have also adversely impacted policy decisions about homelessness in this country.

A recent study titled Living Rough; Surviving City Streets, conducted over 2006-07 by the New Delhi-based Centre for Equity Studies, shows that though the homeless exist in our country in large numbers, the society at large tries to render them invisible, and shockingly, attempts to blame the homeless for their situation. The study, which was supported by the Planning Commission, explored the realities of homeless life in four Indian cities: Delhi, Chennai, Patna and Madurai. Three hundred and forty respondents were interviewed for the study.

The invisibles

According to the official definition, the word homeless is used for people who do not live in a 'census house', such a house being described as a 'structure with a roof'. This description does not consider people who live in makeshift arrangements, shelter homes, or deplorable housing conditions. Besides, the government's official surveys are conducted in the day, when it's difficult to trace the homeless. The quality of data suffers also because the homeless themselves are wary of persons in authority, or in this case, census enumerators. This should partly explain why various reports on homelessness in India present figures strikingly different from official ones.

A report of the non-government organisation Action Aid in 2003 estimated that the total homeless population in India is 78 million. Micro-estimates indicate a similarly high rate of homelessness in Indian towns and cities. In Delhi, the Delhi Development Authority says that at least 1,40,000 people, or about a per cent of the population, is homeless. In Chennai, a civil society survey in 2003 found that the number of homeless people was twice the official estimate, and stood at 40,500.

Compounding the problem is the lack of proper analytical tools to identify and locate the homeless. In fact, lack of relevant information is the main reason behind perceptions about the homeless, which are "largely false", as Suzzane Speak and Graham Tipple from Global Urban Research Unit, University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK, note in their study on the homeless in nine countries, including India. This UK-based Department for International Development's study, titled Perceptions, Persecution and Pity: The Limitations of Interventions for Homelessness, was conducted from 2001 to 2003. Negative perceptions have influenced policy makers and silenced the political voices of the homeless, Gerald Daly, a faculty member of Canada's York University, writes in Migrants and Gatekeepers: The Links between Immigration and Homelessness in Western Europe, an article published in Cities, volume 13, February 1996.

Blaming the victim

Their 'homelessness' makes the homeless more visible than the rest of the poor, and thus, more offensive to public sensibilities. Consider what a police official in Patna has to say in the study: "Everybody has a house somewhere or the other. They are all lying. They are responsible for their poverty. There is no scarcity of work opportunity. There is a scarcity of people who are willing to work. These people are lazy." While such labelling may be convenient for the rest of the society, the study shows that homelessness is caused by extreme poverty, unavailability of low cost housing, unstable employment, unemployment and destitution or family abuse.

Street children are a common sight.
(Photo by Rafi P).

In the study, about 46 per cent of the people reported extreme poverty as the primary reason for homelessness. Most of these people have migrated in search of livelihoods, but urban centres offer only irregular, uncertain employment. Besides, urban areas come with an attendant set of problems: the cost of living is much higher than in rural areas; there are no community support systems; and they have to pay for everything, including water and toilets, which are free in rural areas.

Some respondents said they could not afford to rent a house (the highest such incidences were reported from Chennai). The reasons cited were absence of low-cost housing in cities and the pressure to save and send money home. A United Nations Development Programme concept note prepared for a project on strategies for urban poverty reduction, being implemented since November 2003, stated that 95 per cent of legal urban space was used and kept for the benefit of the most privileged five per cent of the city population.

Rampant corruption in the system ensures that this situation remains unchanged. The most recent example is in the city of Bangalore, which has woken up to a land scam by its development authority. The land meant for building affordable housing was sold to VIPs and politicians who faked eligibility (as reported in the television channel NDTV on May 20, 2008).

Criminalising the homeless

Under Indian laws, homeless beggars are treated as criminals and booked under various beggary laws. The Bombay Beggary Prevention (1959) Act defines beggars as anyone soliciting alms and who have 'no visible means of subsistence', including those who sell small articles at traffic lights and other public places. When penalised, beggars or homeless persons have to face hearings at a special court and may be sent to an institution, or can bail themselves out by paying money.

In Delhi, the homeless are most scared of a van called Seva Kuteer. This van rounds up the homeless and beggars and they are put in beggars' jails for up to three years. The children at the railway station call the days of raids as 'chhapa din', literally meaning days of raids, and escape from the station as quickly as they can whenever these occur, writes Harsh Mander, director of the Centre for Equity Studies and the author of the consolidated report on homelessness in four cities, in the study.

The study found that 15 per cent of the respondents in Delhi were arrested for living on the streets, 14 per cent for begging, and 5.5 per cent for other crimes. In Chennai, 5 per cent reported being arrested for living on the streets or begging, and 6 per cent for other crimes, whereas Madurai reported 7 per cent being arrested for begging, and 8.5 per cent for sex work and other reasons. In Patna, 7 per cent of the respondents were arrested for living on streets, and two men for begging. This is likely to be a significant underestimate, because of the stigma of arrest, both for crimes and for begging that homeless people themselves carry, Mander writes in the study.

When a chief minister or any VIP passes through an area, the homeless on those streets are driven away. The homeless in Chennai say this happens for about four to five times a year. A homeless man from Patna, who sleeps in Gandhi Maidan, says in the study: "We get beaten up badly for sleeping here." The cruelty with which homeless are evicted from their makeshift houses is narrated by a homeless woman in Patna: "Halla Gardi (literally commotion, here used to refer to bulldozer) displaces us. When the administration pulls down houses, it also throws away our food and breaks our worldly belongings. They kick at our chulla and bring it down. The bamboo is torn. Suitcases are thrown away. They abuse us. What can we do? We have to stay here so we keep mum."

Homeless people are also more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of a crime. Not only are they robbed of their meagre possessions and savings, but women and children are also more prone to sexual assault, most of which is committed by persons in authority, say Speak and Tipple in their study. An anxious homeless woman, living on the pavement with her five children and husband who works as a construction labourer in Patna, says, "There are lots of dangers, lots of thieves are around who pick up our stuff and run away. Goons come to threaten us. One person from our group stays up at night. Only after five in the morning can we relax."

Most homeless people are not beggars. The study found that just about 28 per cent of the homeless live on mendicancy. Most beggars were old widows and persons with disabilities. As Madurai is considered a hospitable temple city, and as charity is high on the agenda of pilgrims, the city had the highest number of destitutes (90 per cent live on charity), followed closely by Patna that had a significant number of leprosy patients. Adult, able-bodied beggars were mostly unemployed people who were also looking for work. A few daily wage labourers too begged on the days when work was unavailable.

The study found that most homeless were working for long hours in difficult jobs to earn their daily food. About half of the sample population were working as casual wage labourers or in unstable occupations like rickshaw-pulling, construction labour, shoe polishing, performing on the roads, and rag-picking. These were largely the options available to men. Among women, about 10.5 per cent worked as domestic helps, and 3 per cent were home makers. Due to acute hardships, some homeless reported taking recourse to extreme ways of earning income, like 'renting of body' (about 2 per cent reported commercial sex work), and 'sale of body parts' (6.57 per cent, though in Patna, 13 per cent of the respondents were professional blood donors). It is important to note that most of them were women.

On the street, still a family

A common though erroneous notion is that homeless people are extremely mobile, and largely social isolates, say Speak and Tipple in their study. Even if some percentage of the homeless moves frequently, a large number of them are stable, sleep in the same locations and have mutually supportive arrangements. V Dupont, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Research for Development in France, illustrates in his 1998 seminar presentation titled Mobility Pattern and Economic Strategies of Houseless People in Old Delhi, that many handcart pullers of Old Delhi cook, eat and sleep in the same area, thus also providing security to each other.

Most homeless migrants, who come to cities in groups, belong to the same village or caste groups. About 24 per cent of them even have adopted relatives on the street. Saroja and Rampyari, two homeless widows in Delhi without families, decided to adopt each other as mother and daughter. A street boy in Delhi adopted a disabled old man as his grandfather: he would carry him for long distances on his back, and save the money he earned by rag-picking to pay for his food and medicines. Street boys tend to live in gangs, sharing everything - food, clothes and intoxicants - and teach each other trades such as rag-picking and recycling drinking water bottles. They protect each other from street violence and the police, and feed each other in sickness, says Mander in the study.

Almost all migrants maintain regular contact with their families in the village, send money home and often go back in times of needs and festivals. This is true even for many widows and leprosy patients, who visit their families occasionally.

Myths about mental health

It's perceived that most homeless are mentally ill or emotionally unsound. However, the study found that only 1.47 per cent of respondents were suffering from mental illness, and all were from Delhi. Most had healthy minds and did not show any signs of psychological disorders. Moreover, mental illness could be a result of homelessness, rather than the cause. Speak and Tipple write, "The vast majority of even the most destitute of street dwellers must be emotionally robust in order to construct the complex strategies by which they survive."

While many feel pity for those on the streets and consider them helpless and unfortunate, Speak and Tipple's study states that some street children provided for themselves better than their parents could. Remaining homeless was often an economic decision, a strategy to survive at a low expense in the city, so that some money could be saved to sent back home. As Mander writes, the study found that 23.25 per cent of the respondents in Delhi, 7.5 per cent in Chennai, and 13.4 per cent in Madurai were sending money home. In the category of homeless people who did not send money home, the majority were children, many of whom had disengaged their ties with their families.

A burden on infrastructure?

The homeless are considered to be a burden on civic infrastructure. A Delhi Municipal Corporation official is quoted in the study as saying, "Almost all of them [the homeless] use illegal electricity connections and we are unable to check them." A police official in Chennai shares a similar opinion in the study: "There are many problems due to homeless people. They cause traffic jams and accidents. They bathe, wash and do everything else on the roads. In all these ways, they are a disturbance to the public."

Facilities such as toilets, bathrooms and water are not easily accessible to the homeless. Each such service that a homeless person needs has to be paid for, and in cash. Having to pay often means that they must relieve themselves in the open, bathe less frequently or in the open/behind plastic covers, and access unclean water through public taps, leaking pipelines, or from petty dhabas where they eat. A homeless construction worker in Patna says, "We go to the radio station (building) to bathe. If we have trouble, we name our contractor. If we don't take his name, then we will not be let in. We will be beaten up with a stick and will be chased away."

The perception of the homeless as criminals makes their arrest and harassment official and justifiable. It devalues their contribution to the informal sector, and leads to lower payments and livelihood insecurities.

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The study found that while 55 per cent of homeless people use community toilets, over 20 per cent relieve themselves in open spaces. A similar proportion bathes in community pay facilities, whereas around 24 per cent bathe at public toilets. Due to the prices that are often prohibitive for them, only 35 per cent bathed daily, says the study.

Night shelters, the only government scheme meant for the homeless, hardly offer any benefits. The Delhi Municipal Corporation runs 17 night shelters, of which none are exclusively for women. Two of these night shelters have a room each for women, but they do not feel safe there. Moreover, these shelters charge Rs 6 for 12 hours of stay. In Patna, a Housing and Urban Development Corporation official says that despite the availability of funds, no new shelter has been constructed in the past three years, even as existing ones become non-operational. Moreover, the conditions of night shelters seem to be appalling.

Perceptions and policies

More research is required to assess the impact of negative perceptions on the homeless, their social interactions and on public policy. However, some of these aspects have been investigated. The perception of the homeless as criminals makes their arrest and harassment official and justifiable. It devalues their contribution to the informal sector, and leads to lower payments and livelihood insecurities.

As the homeless are seen as dirty and unkempt, this image is used to legitimise their eviction from their makeshift arrangements. Termed as transient, and thereby difficult to trace, they are not given voter identity or ration cards that require 'address proofs'. As a result, they are excluded from the benefits of citizenship. Instead of targeting homelessness, it's the homeless who are targeted in this country for no reason.