The hard reality of the homeless in Delhi: Designing a shelter for homeless families

The teen balloon-seller outside your car window at the traffic junction, the old man behind the corner cigarette stall, the woman who sweeps your streets, the worker at the Metro construction site, the rickshaw puller in your neighbourhood - these are a few of the daily faces from the thousands of homeless people living on the streets of the capital city, Delhi.

Statistics are a curious phenomenon as is evident in the case of the government figures for the number of homeless in Delhi. Based on their 2014 survey which identified only 16,760 homeless individuals, Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) claims that there are enough night shelters (275 in total with a capacity for 19, 764 individuals) for the number of homeless in the city. However, these figures and the survey methodology used have been questioned by several civil society organisations. Today, the main NGOs in this field estimate that the total number of homeless in Delhi could be anywhere between 150,000 to 300,000.

Not only is there a huge gap between the number of homeless and the shelter options available to them, many of the homeless prefer not to use the night shelters provided by the government, as reported by DUSIB itself. The design of most of these shelters is not in accordance with the space requirements (50 square feet per person as stipulated by the Supreme Court order in 2010) and with little or no insulation, they provide little relief to the homeless. Most of the night shelters do not provide locker facilities and as a result, many homeless prefer to sleep elsewhere with their belongings due to fear of theft. Lack of basic facilities and hygiene, accessibility and locations far removed from the livelihoods of the homeless are the other reasons behind many of them preferring to sleep in the open instead of the cramped night shelters. There is also a lack of understanding of the different homeless demographics by the government which treats the homeless population as a homogeneous group, with limited shelter options for the different categories and requirements of women, children and families in particular.

A similar generalization and lack of understanding can also be found in the general perception of the homeless by the public, which often sees them as 'illegal' and 'criminal'. Contrary to many misconceptions that people harbour about the homeless in India, and internationally as well, the homeless population comprises not just beggars but its majority is made up of service providers. These 'city-makers' could be rickshaw pullers, vendors, rag pickers, security guards, daily wage labourers or domestic workers, to mention a few profiles. They could be low-income migrants who are unable to find affordable housing or entire families who have been victims of forced slum eviction drives that left them homeless overnight.

In light of the huge absence of shelter options for the homeless, mHS CITY LAB has been investigating possible solutions for the hundreds of families living on pavements in urban areas. Since the fall of 2014, we have been working on a bottom up approach to provide shelters for this group which we finally developed as ekSHELTER. Some of the key challenges faced by the homeless are a lack of privacy and protection from the elements of nature (along with exposure to diseases due to mosquitoes), and the difficulty in erecting even semi-permanent shelters during the day due to intimidation by the police. ekSHELTER is a low-cost family tent for two people and 1-2 children which can be set up within a few minutes at night and packed equally quickly in the morning. It is made from affordable and readily available materials in Indian cities – bamboo for the frame, welded rebars as joints and wax coated canvas as skin – which can be easily repaired or replaced. The shelter uses locally available skills of a tailor and a welder, with a design that is easy to understand and replicate.

The design is an outcome of over ten months of research and feedback obtained on various prototypes from the homeless. Supported by a crowd-funding campaign for the pilot project, we distributed around fifty shelters during the monsoon in Delhi with the help of IGSSS and will be able to distribute over fifty more in time for winter this year. The feedback has been very positive, especially from the women beneficiaries who can now have some privacy and protection for themselves as well as their children. With the help of IGSSS, we will monitor the tents over the following six months and gather feedback on the usage of the shelters. The inputs collected would be crucial for developing not just the design of the shelters, but also the channels of their distribution which are aimed at empowering the homeless to be able to build their own shelters. We are also in dialogue with a few organizations that have expressed the wish to replicate the design of the shelter.

The pilot aims to be a case study and a call for solutions. There is an urgent need to understand and address the challenges faced by the homeless population, which cannot be looked at as a homogenous group. The government’s simplistic assumptions and approach towards homelessness are unfortunately transferred into various policies and laws that govern their limited projects targeting the homeless. It needs to be understood that for many of the ‘city-makers’, homelessness is a forced interim solution that could end if they could manage just one more step up the socio-economic ladder that urban centres offer. Facilitating this category, and at the least providing basic human support to all homeless groups, should be imperative for the civic authorities.

References: AAA (Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan) (2001) "The Capital’s Homeless - A Preliminary Study", Delhi: Aashray Adhikar Abhivan Publication. GNCTD-UNDP (2011) Homeless survey 2010 (Draft). Project Management Unit, GNCTD-UNPD Project, Delhi: Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi. Dupont, Véronique (2013). "Which Place for the Homeless in Delhi? Scrutiny of a Mobilisation Campaign in the 2010 Commonwealth Games Context", South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], Online since 19 December 2013, connection on 21 August 2015. IGSSS (2012) "The Unsung City Makers. A study of the homeless Residents of Delhi", New Delhi: Indo-Global Social Service Society. Minton, A. (2006). "What kind of world are we building? The privatisation of public space". London: RICS. SCCO (2011) Delhi Homeless Shelter Plan, National Resource Team for the Homeless, New Delhi: Supreme Court Commissioner’s Office. Tingal, Dhananjay; Pandey, Vijay Kumar (2008) "The Known Unknown: A Study of the Homeless Peoplein Delhi", New Delhi: Indo-Global Social Service Society. Commissioners of the Supreme Court - in the Case of Writ Petition (Civil) 196 of 2001 (2014). "Shelters for the Urban Homeless: A Handbook for Administrators and Policymakers", Kundli: Rajkamal Press.

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