For Shantanu Mukherjee, winters invariably meant freezing on the pavements of Delhi.
A resident of the city for 12 years, he had coped with the biting cold before, but this year it was especially unforgiving.
“This year the winters have gone really bad and sleeping on streets is a major challenge as cold doesn’t let you sleep and also it’s the police that add to the woes”, he said.
Fortunately for Mukherjee and other rickshaw pullers in Old Delhi, a solution was at hand. They started spending their nights at a shelter in the walled city’s Chandni Chowk area.
An estimated 150,000 people live on the streets of Delhi, perhaps 10,000 of them, children.
Mukherjee’s winter-time refuge, Rain Basera, is run and managed by Ashraya Adhikar Abhiyan, a non-profit organization. Funding for the shelter comes from ActionAid.
Started in 2000, Ashraya Adhikar Abhiyan currently runs 20 shelters in areas including across Delhi, accommodating a total of about 800 people through the year.
The majority of these shelters are concentrated in Old Delhi, a densely packed urban space with large commercial markets and two major railway stations from which new migrants with few prospects pour in everyday.
The scale of the problem is daunting, but Sanjay Kumar, the founder of Ashraya Adhikar Abhiyan says he’d rather not play a numbers game.
“Our focus is not to run shelters just for the sake of providing a roof to homeless people. The main motive is to provide people basic facilities like sanitation, health care, a television for entertainment and even a library, along with a roof to stay under and a blanket to wear in order to protect from the cold. The idea is to put a role model in front of the government that opening a shelter just doesn’t mean just opening a room to stay.”
But even finding a place to stay turned out to be a challenge for some of Delhi’s homeless. Earlier in December, the Delhi Development Authority razed two of the government’s own shelters in south Delhi. The Supreme Court reacted by ordering them to rebuild them in three days.
Rain Basera may have had more luck with local authorities, but for those residing there, the winter isn’t their only pressing problem.
“[The] majority of the homeless people are migrants and thus face a lot of problem when it comes to their identity. They don’t exist in government records, face police harassment and even have difficulties in things as small as issuing a Sim card because they have no identity proof.” said Sanjay Kumar.
To help curb the problem, Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan started issuing identity cards called Abhiyan Saathi, which in turn helped many homeless get voter ID cards.
The organization also helped talked to state-run Union Bank to introduce a program for financial inclusion that would offer the homeless saving schemes.
Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan’s shelters are free for women children and senior citizens.
But men have to pay Rs6 for every 12 hours they stay. But some complain they’d rather see basic facilities improve than get to watch TV.
“The blankets provided here are dirty and hardly washed. They cause you to itch all over,” said Manoj Kumar, who lives in the shelter at night and works as a waiter during the day.
Another resident, Fasal Haq, said, “the water that is provided is not clean at all and we get ill after drinking it. Also there should be a canteen to provide us with proper food.”
Aashray also runs a separate shelter for homeless children in Fatehpuri area and a shelter exclusively for women in Jama Masjid area in Old Delhi.
The former has about 15 children. Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan takes care of their education and also extracurricular activities like like yoga and dance classes.
The women’s shelter meanwhile has about 50 women. They stay in simple tents, but welcome the added sense of security.
On resident Jai Bun Khatun said “The police were not good to me when I was living in streets with my three children and even beat us sometimes. Now the police listens to us and our complaints.”