Holistic help for Mumbai's homeless

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai, 5 August 2015

Mumbai's streets are never easy to handle. From the cracks to the crowds, the roads are a challenging place, but one that thousands of families all over the city call home. These families come from a variety of circumstances, but, says Pehchan, an NGO that works closely with this population, the vast majority of them are the city's working poor — a notion that dispels a widely held belief that the homeless are beggars. Their meager incomes prohibit them from even moving into the city's thousands of informal settlements. In fact, many of the homeless that Pehchan works with have been living fully on the streets for decades, multiple generations. The inequities they face come from nearly every direction and are challenging to address.

Brijesh Arya founded Pehchan to empower the homeless to challenge the inequities they face in their lives. Pehchan's multi-faceted programs all aim to create self-reliance for Mumbai's families on the street, and often, this begins by giving them an identity. Most of the homeless Pehchan encounters have no identity cards, many of which can help them access basic food rations, not to mention make them feel a part of the city in which they reside. The organization guides the homeless through the application process (many are illiterate, which makes it even more difficult on their own) and the multiple layers of bureaucracy it takes to get an identity card for people with no address. For many, once they receive the card, it becomes one of their most treasured possessions.

For other activities, Pehchan starts by building a community among local homeless populations and then cultivating leaders within those groups. The leaders help Pehchan carry out educational programs for children on the streets, legal workshops and livelihood-strengthening activities. One essential aspect to moving the homeless off the streets is to provide skills training and employment opportunities that are better than their current circumstances. Many homeless work as day laborers, from catering to car washing, while others are self-employed with small businesses, trading old clothes or working as domestic help. Pehchan has trained the women on the streets to create doll keychains, earrings and other accessories that are sold at major chain retailers. The materials are all donated, ensuring all the proceeds go directly to the homeless.

While work on the ground is vital to the every day life of Mumbai's homeless, Pehchan is also strategizing a better future for this population. The future the organization imagines is no longer on the streets. They have been working to provide more temporary shelters in the city and, as importantly, tap into the ongoing affordable housing debate for the cities majority working poor — from street sleepers to slum dwellers.

Improving the opportunities for Mumbai's homeless is an ongoing process. The multiple inequities the homeless face have perpetuated cycles of poverty that have been difficult to overcome, but Pehchan's holistic approach has given new hope not only for Mumbai's homeless but for addressing the needs of the ultra poor around the country.

Photo: Dolls made through the Pehchan program.

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