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In urban wilderness:Among the homeless, the women suffer a lot. A scene in Egmore.
CHENNAI: The voters' identity card of 28-year-old homemaker B. Bavani gives her address as “180, NSC Bose Road,” where no trace of her home is to be seen. She is not the owner of the medical shop located at the address. She is one among the hundreds of homeless women who take shelter outside shops in the night.
“I have a voters' Identity card, but no ration card. So I do not get benefits of the welfare schemes of the government,” says Ms. Bavani.
She is not an exception as over 69 per cent of homeless families do not have ration card, according to a survey. The Chennai Corporation estimates that around 11,000 people in the city are homeless. But NGOs say the number is much higher.
G. Devi, a homeless woman in Flower Bazaar, says: “Around 50 families in our locality are homeless. Each one of us has apportioned space on the pavement adjacent to the shops. Every night we wait for the shops to shut so that we can sleep on the pavement.”
“During the day, we take shelter in the shade of a tree. Only when we fall sick we find it difficult,” she adds.
Ms. Devi is part of a group of homeless people who make garlands for the shops in Flower Bazaar. “I earn Rs.50 per day by making garlands,” she says.
There are close to 20 localities in Chennai that have a significant number of homeless people. Communities in each of these areas have a distinct identity. For example, pavement dwellers near the Government Royapettah Hospital are paper pickers. Those in Vyasarpadi make clay dolls, while many among the homeless in Triplicane are beggars.
Understanding the nature of their livelihood and its links with the street is essential in any effort to mainstream these communities, say experts.
A case in point is the intervention of World Vision to encourage street children in Triplicane to go to school. After a few months, they started noticing that all the children stopped attending school on Fridays. It turns out many of the children went along with their parents to beg outside the mosque.
Fredrick Melvin of World Vision says that these communities do not mingle with each other.
“That is why it might not be such a good idea to put them all together in a night shelter. They need a holistic rehabilitation programme, similar to the one in place for slum dwellers.”
In the absence of ration card, many homeless are not entitled to welfare benefits offered by the government. S. Udaya (22) applied for a ration card by mentioning her address as ‘Royapettah Paalam,' beneath which she was born and brought up. “They asked me for a door number. Which number do I give?” she asks.
According to a survey by Actionaid few years ago, 83 per cent of the homeless were illiterate; 75 per cent of the homeless children in 7-14 age group are school dropouts; 93 per cent have not availed of any government welfare measure; 55 per cent did not have access to a public toilet; 41 per cent were suffering from some disease during the time of enumeration; 17 per cent did not have access to the public health system and 20 per cent of homeless units are headed by women.
“Night shelter should be only a temporary arrangement before the homeless attain their housing rights,” says Vanessa Peter of Actionaid.
The Census of India defines them as persons who are not living in ‘census houses' (a structure with roof), hence the enumerators were instructed ‘to take note of the possible places where the houseless population is likely to live – roadside, pavements, drainage pipes, under staircases, temple-mandapams and platforms.
In Chennai, most of the homeless belong to families that have been living for generations on the street.
Saroja (72) belongs to one of the 47 families who reside opposite the Egmore railway station. She has been living on the street for almost seventy years now.
A saving grace though is the fact that her great grand daughter goes to a nearby school. Murugan, at Parry's, does not clearly remember his age, but knows that he has been on the street all his life. His family comprises two sons and they have two monkeys, with which they earn about Rs.60 everyday.
“I realise as an old man I cannot do any work. My sons give me food sometimes, if they earn more, other wise I beg for money,” he says.
Food is never a concern, Saroja says, for Egmore has many hotels that send people on bikes after 1 a.m. to sell their left-over dosas priced at Rs.5 each. “There is so much variety in food, but it comes very late. Sometimes they do not turn up,” says Karpagham, who has been homeless for the last 30 years. Women mostly sleep together to ward off miscreants, she says.
“For lunch, we ask tea shop owners to rent us their stoves for an hour, for twenty rupees. When they refuse, we get stale bread packets from shops for three rupees,” says Devi, a homeless in Egmore.
Among the homeless, women suffer the most.
“We wear the same clothes for almost ten days, and wash all of them after 2 months,” says Nilofer. Initially, attendants at public toilets used to exploit us, charging us Rs.20 for a bath.
Most of these women are employed by marriage contractors to clear dining tables and wash utensils. Health is never a priority for these women, because, it comes only after children, protection from violence and abuse and income.
“During pregnancies, we make sure we go and get admitted a week before the due date,” says Kala (37).
“Most of the women are anaemic. The concept of saving is almost unknown,” says Esther Shanthi of Indian Community Welfare Organisation.
The men mainly are engaged in transport and load carrying work. “It is only during the Thai thiruvizha when we collect money from shops and buy ourselves new clothes,” says Shankaran, a hand cart puller at Parrys.
A reason why the cart that he rents for Rs.55 a day is special to him is because that is where his ten-year-old daughter studies during the exam time. She is one of the seven children of the 13 homeless families there, who go to school.
Difficult in monsoon
The most difficult are the months of monsoon. “We go to the railway stations. Shops nearby often give some of us who clean their shops or carry their goods, some space to sleep,” says Kamakshi, a mother of three.
Living close to places that fetch their livelihood is what they want, and many say it is unfair that officials expect them to avail the tenements in Kannagi Nagar, Thoraipakkam. Members of civil society, who work closely with the homeless in the city, stress the need for a dignified living for these homeless rather than just concrete buildings.
Proper mapping of the homeless and identification of potential resources for their rehabilitation, creation of their demographic and occupational profile, involvement of the homeless in management of night shelters and livelihood services should be priorities now, they say.
(With inputs from Aloysius Xavier Lopez, Ajai Sreevatsan and Vasudha Venugopal)
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