Common Misconceptions

There are several misconceptions that society has concerning the homeless. Although only a few will be discussed here, they are numerous and widespread. They also severely hinder attempts to create a more productive discussion amongst the citizens themselves which in turn does not force the government into action. Firstly, many think that they are “uneducated, dirty and uncouth” and that that is the reason they are on the streets. However many have left their homes, families and communities to find work, or have escaped emotionally/physically abusive environments and often do not have any other choice. These are people who simply lacked the opportunity to move up the               socioeconomic ladder. Another misconception is that they are simply too stubborn, or lack the common sense to understand that they should go to the custom built winter shelters.

The government has built 218 such shelters in Delhi alone, with the capacity of 17,000 people. On colder nights, officials, policemen and NGO workers forcefully push them into shelters; citizens are even encouraged to use an app to report the location of someone who is homeless to aid in this ‘rescue’ mission. As well-intended as this is, people have some genuine reasons for being reluctant: the shelters are unsanitary, giving residents fleas; sleeping next to strangers can be dangerous and stealing is more common; the storage belongings, of small stocks (that are sold in the day) and rickshaws are not allowed and untrained, poorly paid, unmotivated staff are extremely disrespectful. Places like Jama Masjid, Chandini Chowk and Yamuna Pushta had some relative safety in the numbers but these ‘rescue’ missions force them into dangerous alleys and parks. The missions and the shelters are definitely well-intended and signify some initiative from the government but they need to be more focussed towards the unique challenges that the homeless face. Finally, many citizens believe that those on the streets are criminals or in some way illegal. However most are ‘city-makers’ such as rickshaw pullers, vendors, rag pickers, security guards, daily wage labourers and domestic workers. Their low income often means that they cannot afford ‘affordable housing’ and some are even forced from slums.

Do they not belong to this world as much as we do? Are they not the children of the same God?


Delhi’s homeless prefer to sleep in the freezing cold than in government shelters


C/O Footpaths

Thousands of street children roam the streets of every major city in India.

They are part of homeless families or fugitives from abusive households, hunger and prostitution. In Delhi, they arrive at the train platforms and are taken up by gangs. They are snapped up into a “cycle of abuse” and no one seems to care says Sanjay Gupta, director of Chetna, an NGO working for street children in Delhi. Their sheer numbers are not even recorded correctly. Not even 10% of all cases of rape, sodomy, or murder of the children are reported. In Delhi alone, 5 lakh children are homeless but less than 50,000 exist in the government records. Though a Scheme for Assistance to Street Children was introduced in 1993 – and later extended – it did not help as it could not be correctly enforced at such a large scale. The Right to Education also dictated that every kid should be in school but millions sit on footpaths with no access to any kind of schooling.  Identifying the causes and numbers of this group of the chronically homeless should be the first concern while implementing a solution. Most shelters today are run by NGOs such as Salaam Baalak who try to educate as many people about the life that these youths lead.

Usually coming from an abusive household, the kids run away at young ages, coming to larger cities in hopes of freedom and a better life. They can earn more than Rs 200 a day, pick pocketing, begging, working in a fruit stall, cleaning cars, shoe shining and selling rubbish. The money cannot be saved, it will probably be taken by adults, bigger kids, and even corrupt police, so it must be spent at the end of the day. Food is not usually an issue as they are fed at temples they beg, borrow or steal. The money is spent on drugs and entertainment – video games, movies and glue or typewriter correction fluid. Those who take these inhalants usually die by the time they hit their late teens. For the girls, it can get worse – taken by brokers and sold into prostitution. This life may not sound like freedom but for most it is better than what they left behind and quite hard to give up to go to a shelter. To a child, freedom means not bathing or going to school; watching movies and playing video games; staying out late.  And this is exactly the life they lead.

However, the counsellors at Salaam Baalak don’t pressure them into living at the shelters and going to school, and some  – after a period at the shelter-  return home. Every year, they send 600-700 of Delhi’s street children back home to different parts of India, but only when the child is ready. In the meantime they provide, schooling, medical attention and a home. Those who stay at the shelter get all kinds of jobs, from highway toll collectors to engineers, even an actor and an internationally known photographer. NGOs like this truly help these kids have a childhood where they are safe, educated and fed and this is very important for them to eventually cross the poverty line, leading much better lives.


Portable Housing the way to housing the Urban Homeless?

Portable, temporary, modular housing structures may be the future of housing the homeless. These designs are manufactured at fractions of the cost of current affordable housing units, and they are easy to install, use and move if need be. This makes them perfect for the world’s chronically homeless. Though the technology exists to implement this ambitious scheme in many cities, regular manufacturing and installation of such units may be far in the future. However, there are several NGOs and architects working towards making this a viable solution, world over.


Skid Row, Los Angeles


At the centre of huge encampments, Skid Row has always been the centre of a huge homeless population in the city of Los Angeles, USA. Now working to solve this social issue, USC’s School of Architecture has launched Homeless Studio. This initiative is run by 11 fourth year architecture students and their instructors, who aim to build “temporary, moveable, modular, and expandable structures” specifically designed for the urban homeless. The students study homelessness by attending talks by experts in the field and meeting their clients through agencies such as Midnight Mission and Skid Row Housing Trust. This allows them to truly understand their needs, which most organisations make little to no attempt to do. This results in small changes to their designs that make a world of difference to the chronically homeless, such as a wooden shelf at ground level to keep their feet of the street. It shows that their ventures in the actual daily lives of their clients gives them the opportunity to incorporate dignity into their design – an utterly unique and tailor-made home, not house. The students also attempt to use smart solutions that they “pick up” from the streets such as the use of tents, boxes, shopping carts, trailers and so on. The designs will eventually be delivered to Skid Row and a final group project will serve as a template for temporary housing development Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission, making a more permanent change to their society.


Merton, London 


Award-winning architecture firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners are designing prefabricated, semi portable housing for about 35 people in the Merton, London. The units are built in a factory in Derbyshire allowing for precision while minimising waste (and therefore cost) them craned into place on site with the services already installed. The units have a lifespan of 60 years and can be relocated. Each unit is 600 pounds cheaper than the local authoritie’ new builds and therefore can be rented for 150 pound a week, 65% of market rate. Insulation and air-tightness put energy bills as low as 10 pounds a month. For the tenants- half from YMCA housing and half from the housing waiting list – the units are practical and cheap, a virtual god-send in this area of London.


Gurgaon, Delhi


The peak of winter in Delhi sees the installation of 8 portable cabins and a permanent night shelter (with two women only rooms) placed around Gurgaon. Each cabin is 10-20 feet and can accommodate up to 10 people. They will also have caretakers and 10 sets of bedding as well as a mobile toilet nearby. And the liaison officers will send more people to the community centre says Mahender Singh, Chief Project Officer. But a tour of these cabins quickly reveals the problems. A few have seepage problems that leads to wet bedding. One had no occupants due to safety fears. Another has no electricity due to a nearby construction site. Yet another’s toilets are locked as the drainage pipes have not been installed.  The locals also have no idea they exist and those who do are unwilling to move due to fear. Attendants say they cannot prove that they are there to help and they can’t stop alcoholics and drug addicts. This project was a step in the right direction but in order to become a viable temporary solution, much more attention must be paid to its faults.