Taking an interdisciplinary perspective: shelter for Mumbai's working homeless

Rakhi Mehra, micro Home Solutions, Mumbai Guest ContributorRakhi Mehra, micro Home Solutions, Mumbai Guest Contributor

The situation of the 'homeless' in India is dire. Roughly one percent of the urban population in India is believed to be homeless, amounting to an estimated 3 million people. The official Census of India (2001), however, tells a different story: the figures report only 778,599 homeless, a gross underestimate. These street dwellers sleep under flyovers, in parks, and on pathways.

The Supreme Court of India, in addition to the right to food, issued a directive in February 2010 for a fundamental right to shelter. The ruling instructed each state government to provide one shelter (with a 100-person capacity) for every 100,000 of population. The response of the state governments has been nothing short of embarrassing. Mumbai, with a population of over 20 million people, should have at least 200 shelters, although only six units exist, according to the Homeless Collective, a forum of civil society organizations. The Delhi government, on the other hand, undertook hasty measures, leading to gross negligence and a waste of resources. To meet its targets last winter, it approved construction of over 60 temporary shelters and is estimated to have spent over INR 2.4 crore (US$500,000) without seeking a technical opinion on design. The shelters were made from tin materials that have zero insulation capacity, making them inhuman to sleep in. The homeless were left to sleep indoors (occupancy below 30 percent in winter and almost zero in summer). The growing homeless situation and the 'one-size-fits-all' solutions that have been implemented thus far highlight the need for innovation in this area.

Innovations for modular shelters

Our organization, micro Home Solutions (mHS), has sought to bring its interdisciplinary expertise in architecture, community engagement, and program design to homeless shelters in India. We designed and built two prototypes of temporary shelters, each with a capacity of up to 80 people, at the embankment of the Yamuna River, which is opposite the Inter-State Bus Terminal (ISBT) in Delhi, host to a large homeless population. The aim was to be able to influence the local government models on the design and operations of homeless shelters.

The design process began with social interactions with different homeless groups, which were essential to understanding preferences, selecting the location, and choosing the final design of the shelters. We learned that the homeless are not a homogeneous segment. There are daily wage earners, single mothers, street children, substance-abuse addicts that require different support services (health, food, work, etc.) in addition to housing. They also have different capacities to pay. While some would require social support and linkage with medical clinics or livelihood centers, the daily wage laborers could be accommodated in dormitories and have shown a willingness to pay for their housing. To design the modular shelters, we undertook several night visits to see the operations of existing shelters and evaluated the basic needs of the working segment, such as cleanliness, safety, locker access, toilets, and availability of affordable and nutritious food.

For the design, the municipality had given permission to set up two temporary structures at the Yamuna Banks with permission for extension every three months. Thus, an important design consideration was a structure that would be easy to dismantle and rebuild with widely available materials that could be resold easily in the market and that used local labor and was built on site (instead of pre-cast). Also, the shelter would need to be climate-sensitive to weather the extreme winter (1 degree Celsius or 33 degrees Fahrenheit), extreme heat (over 45 degrees Celsius or 113 degrees Fahrenheit) and the monsoon climates of Delhi. The structure was therefore built from a bamboo frame, with double walls made of canvas to provide an air cavity for insulation. The false ceiling prevented winter dew and was adaptable to provide cooling in the summer. The flooring was laid with bricks, which were raised to prevent rodents and animals from surfacing.

To ensure the long-term viability of the project, we proposed a model that would be operationally sustainable. Since over half of the homeless are able-bodied men earning a daily wage of INR150-300 (US$3-6), there was a willingness to pay for night use of the shelter (many already pay for bedding/space up to INR40 (~US$1) a night. A daily usage fee of INR20 (US$0.40) for shelter per person could meet the construction costs (~ INR450 or $US10 per square foot) and help to break even in eight months with an average of 60 users per night. Additional service fees for providing toilets, lockers, entertainment, and food could help in covering the operational costs and subsidize costs of other non-remunerative shelters. Although the NGO had hired a paid volunteer from the homeless community to manage the shelter, we were not in a position to administer a fee. By government rules, the night shelters have to be free of charge during the winter, and an unrevised INR6 (US$0.12) during other times for permanent shelters.

The modular shelters, based on the interdisciplinary concept, were chosen by the Cooper Hewitt Museum for its exhibit on Design with the Other 90% at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in 2011. Even though the modular shelters design worked well, influencing the government to adopt the concept has been a challenge, despite the ruling from the Supreme Court of India. The policy response has been rigid and there is a resistance to charging a nominal fee and/or providing additional services to those that can afford them. As a result, there are resources allocated only for a few shelters and the provision of sub-standard services. mHS is now working with a civil society group under the Poverty Commissioner to the Supreme Court and currently advising the retrofit of the current tin shelters to make them habitable for the monsoons.

Playing the incubation and facilitation role

The work in shelters has offered many insights into the need for stakeholder coordination and the urgent need to address multi-dimensional aspects of housing provision. Our role as incubators and facilitators at mHS is to study and incubate new projects, demonstrate proof of concept, and identify strategic ways to leverage and scale up these initiatives, either by influencing policy or informing project design. We hope to see policymakers adopt a problem-solving approach focusing on an interdisciplinary perspective on the design of just and inclusive cities.

Rakhi Mehra is founding partner of micro Home Solutions. She started her career as an intern at the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and worked with Ashoka Fellows in microfinance in India before joining CARE India, where she helped to design the post-tsunami rehabilitation program in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, as a Program Associate. She also spent a year as a consultant with Rabo Bank India in agribusiness and microfinance. Rakhi was born in Delhi, studied at the St. Stephen's College at Delhi University and later read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (P.P.E) at Oxford University on the Rhodes scholarship in 2001. She earned her MBA from Harvard Business School in 2009. She was awarded the HBS Social Enterprise Fellowship in 2011. Rakhi founded mHS with her architect husband, Marco Ferrario. They live in Delhi with their 11-month-old daughter, Nora.

micro Home Solutions is a social housing enterprise with a mission to build inclusive cities based on interdisciplinary principles of community, affordability and design. Founded in 2009, mHS is developing a portfolio of housing solutions that include dormitory shelters, self-construction and incremental housing, rent-to-own models that are viable and scalable.

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