Appalled by the state of homelessness in Tamil Nadu, the Madras High Court sought to know the number of families owning more than two houses by March 6.

Hounded by cops abandoned by state Chennais homeless fight for dignity on the streets
news Urban Homelessness Thursday, February 27, 2020 - 13:01

On a chilly February night in Chennai, Seetha* (40) and Murugan* (48), settle down with two small packets of food on the footpath opposite Elliot's Beach in the city’s Besant Nagar area. As the popular cafés and trendy bars down the road shut shop for the day, the duo lay their blankets out under the sharp glow of the white light from the street lamps. While Murugan has a frayed towel tied around his head to keep warm, Seetha tightly wraps the pallu of her cotton saree around herself. The couple, abandoned by their respective families, found each other on the city’s streets nearly a decade ago. 

“If there is one thing you can do for us, please ask the police to stop beating us, especially women. Even if some young men create trouble somewhere on the beach, the police come here and beat us with lathis, sometimes even if we are asleep. We struggle to make ends meet. He’s a construction labourer and I carry water for homes in the slum nearby. We just want to live,” says Seetha. Murugan says that it has been over three months since he had an uninterrupted night of sleep.

It is just after 11:00 pm and the row of bungalows and independent houses across the footpath have turned off their outdoor lights. The couple want to eat before the food turns cold from the nippy sea breeze. 

Like Seetha and Murugan, there are hundreds of men, women, children, and whole families out on the streets of Chennai, forced to live without a roof over their heads. The government, required to set up basic housing for them and the police, whose duty it is to protect citizens, have let them down over the years. Many of the urban homeless, already living in abject poverty, say that there has been little effort by the government to rehabilitate them while they are the target of harassment by the police on the regular. Dependent on day-to-day manual labour and the kindness of strangers or NGOs for survival, the homeless struggle to live a life of dignity. This, despite the state being obligated by its own policies and Supreme Court guidelines to provide shelters and rehabilitate the homeless.

Addressing homelessness

A little further down the footpath in Besant Nagar, near an overflowing garbage truck, Lakshmiammal*, a former sanitation worker, sits in hopes of a hot meal from the ‘lady who usually sends food with her helper’. Today, no one has shown up. 

Originally from Kannagi Nagar on the other end of the city, Lakshmiammal lost her husband and older daughter many years ago and has lost touch with her younger daughter, who is also homeless. Lakshmiammal is unable to tell her own age.

It is for people like Lakshmiammal  that the state government is supposed to have built shelters with funds from the Centre. In April 2001, the Rajasthan-based People's Union for Civil Liberties petitioned the Supreme Court, seeking to recognise that the right to food is fundamental for the right to life enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Nine years later, in 2010, the court held that the 'right to dignified shelters' was also a part of right to life.

According to the May 2010 directions of the apex court, all states and union territories are to have one shelter at least per lakh of population in all urban centres; they are to be provided with basic amenities such as clean drinking water, lighting, toilets along with provisions made for their security. 

Thus, the National Urban Livelihoods Mission (NULM) was launched in 2013 by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MHUPA) under the UPA government. In 2017, the MHUPA was merged with the Ministry of Urban Development and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs under the BJP government. As a result, Shelters for Urban Homeless (SUH) was made a component under the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana - National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NULM). 

Read: Forced to sell their eggs for fertility treatments, the stories of women from Tamil Nadu

Where are the shelters?

With the Government of India funding 60 percent of the cost to construct shelters and states putting up the remaining 40 percent, the NULM is tasked with providing permanent shelters, equipped with essential services, to the urban homeless. 

The administrative rejigs, however, have had little impact on the ground. The Supreme Court guidelines for Chennai’s population of over 70 lakh means at least 70 shelters in the city alone. However, according to the Greater Chennai Corporation’s figures, only 51 shelters are functional in the city for men, women, girls, boys, men and women with psycho-social needs, trans persons, and the elderly.

When asked about shelters built by the government, including one listed in the area, Lakshmiammal says, “Nobody has told me about any shelters. This is the first time I’m hearing of it.”

A visit to the night shelter nearest to her, run by the Chennai Corporation, confirms that it is a care and protection centre for children. Shelters exclusively for children are not open during the nights, making it difficult for people like Lakshmiammal to find refuge at night.

According to the NULM's own guidelines, shelters for the homeless must be close to where the poorest congregate, like prominent public places. “The location could be decided after mapping the concentration areas where homeless persons reside and work.” it states.

Speaking to TNM, a senior official in the Municipal Administration Department admits that the last effort to map the homeless in Chennai was nearly 10 years ago.

‘A program without a policy’

Vanessa Peter, independent researcher at the Chennai-based Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC) says that existing definitions of homelessness simply do not take into account the diversity of problems that exist among the urban homeless today. Making comprehensive policies for the homeless, who struggle to live a life of dignity, necessitates an understanding of who they are and what issues they face.

“There exists a problem of understanding homelessness. We think it will disappear when people come into shelters. There is a lot of ambiguity around the term itself. Permanent shelter does not mean a permanent solution. There are two things we need to take into consideration. The urban homeless are heterogeneous. We can't have a one-size-fits-all approach. We need different categories. We need to define the term ‘homeless’. There is an elaborate process in terms of definition and outreach. We need to have a good database because of the issues with definition. For example, the migrants who come in and stay, who are not here on contract, will not be covered under the labour laws (applicable in the state). They are unfortunately not recognised under the existing definition. We don't have data because of these nitty gritties,” points out Vanessa. 

She says, “We need a policy. We are currently implementing a program without a policy in place. When a homeless person is rescued and sent to a shelter, we have to get them a Voter ID, Aadhar card; if it is a widowed woman, we need to get her widow pension, etc. There are multiple departments involved in that case. For all the departments to work together, a policy needs to be in place to mandate all these allied services.”

Read: 10 reasons why Chennai’s Marina Loop Road should not be extended to Besant Nagar

Homes built but homeless still

38-year-old Sukanya*, who weaves baskets and sells floor cleaners during the day, tells us that most days of the week she tends to sleep on the pavement at the Marina promenade in the heart of Chennai city. The government built homes and relocated them to Perumbakkam, over an hour away from the main source of her livelihood. 

“They have given us homes but no means to live,” she laments, adding that the one and two-room homes are forced to accommodate more than one family at a time. “There is no separate housing for our sons’ and daughters’ families. We all get the same house,” she says.

Madhavan, who is among the homeless at Marina, explains that they all belong to the indigenous Narikuravar community. A government house alone does not begin to address the complexity of their issue. 

“We are the original Narikuravar community. We have been fighting to get recognition from the government. We have been denied a Scheduled Tribe certificate because the government says it can’t keep track of how many people are taking advantage of these certificates. They accuse people of misusing it. We can get jobs with that certificate, it helps us with educational opportunities too. Despite multiple applications and representations, we have not got it,” says Madhavan.

Vanessa points out that policy makers have learnt that shelters for families do not work as a model. "Mainly because there has been no follow up. It does not simply mean linking them to permanent houses. There are also risks of locating them to peripheral areas. Families are homeless because their livelihood and homes are interconnected. We cannot provide them houses completely away from their livelihood,” she says.

The lack of avenues for education and employment means that this community, as well as other homeless on the streets of the city, are denied the social mobility required to ultimately reintegrate the homeless into society with access to opportunities. 

‘A long way to go’

Appalled by the state of homelessness in Tamil Nadu, the Madras High Court recently sought to know from the government the number of families owning more than two houses by March 6. Suggesting that restrictions be imposed on owning more than one house as a solution to address homelessness, the court highlighted that right to own property was a fundamental right. The judges added that those who wished to purchase more than one house should also consider the plight of those without a roof to their name. They also said that the government had the right to restrict individuals from buying more than one property until “housing for all” is achieved. 

According to reports from 2017, Tamil Nadu was ranked fourth in implementing the NULM’s Shelter for Urban Homeless scheme. But officials of the state concede that more is to be done. 

“There is no doubt that more should be done, especially with something as basic as directing the homeless towards shelters. While we may not experience Delhi levels of cold weather, shelters are built primarily for the homeless to sleep at night. The shelters are often far and there are public display boards directing them to it. The presence of a sign board can also help the public guide the homeless towards the shelters,” says a senior official.

Vanessa, who works closely with deprived urban communities, says, “The Chennai Corporation is the only urban local body across the country to pay NGOs more than what the NULM mandates. Under NULM, only Rs 6 lakh is allocated for this project. In addition to being the only urban local body to have an SUH cell, it is also the first one to have shelter for trans persons and women with disabilities. We also have rescue vehicles and standard operating procedures. Officials from West Bengal, Assam and Karnataka have come to study the Chennai model. However, there are hiccups. That’s mainly because the NULM itself has not understood homeless shelters.”

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