Hot stories off the street

Some lived experiences of homelessness are buried. But the city tries to unearth them, provide shades of shelter and a pat of relief to the needy
With the heat waves setting in, it is gruelling to live without a roof in Chennai
With the heat waves setting in, it is gruelling to live without a roof in ChennaiPhotos | IRCDUC

CHENNAI: Peyaru dhan Laxmi ana kai la Lakshmi illayae (My name is Laxmi but I don’t have any money on me),” says Laxmi, a 60-year-old. Taking a jibe at herself, she says, “Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and then there is me who her family has abandoned on the streets.” During Covid, her son wanted to send her to their native citing that she would be away from the pandemic and safe. Unaware of what the widespread disease was, Laxmi agreed to leave. “He brought me here, to the Tambaram Railway Station, and asked me to wait until he gets us tickets,” she laments, sharing that he has not returned to date.

There are many such stories that the street dwellers would share if you sit and talk with them. “I have a house, gold savings, a well-running business, and generational wealth. My firstborn is greedy, wanting all for himself, he kicked us out in the middle of the night a year back,” says Manonmani, who with her husband and a son lives on the Railway Station Road, St Thomas Mount.

This incident has worsened the mental health of her son, Raja, and there have been times when he went missing. She shares, “He has had developmental issues since birth. Now, living on the streets in extreme conditions, it has become unmanageable. He wants to go home. There are times when he takes off saying that he will question his brother. Due to lapse in memory, he roams around the neighbourhood and comes back here.”

Government interventions

With the heat waves setting in, it is gruelling to live without a roof. Chennai’s weather has two moods; either it is simmering in extreme hotness or it is sinking in unruly floods. From offering water, elaneer and buttermilk in summer to providing umbrellas, raincoats, and blankets during the rainy and winter seasons, individuals come forward to provide safety, sanity, and security to the homeless. A few NGOs volunteer to fulfil the needs for the people on the streets. In collaboration with the government, they help providing a source of livelihood. A report by Chennai Corporation titled ‘Shelter for Homeless Initiative’ defines a homeless person as someone “who do not have a house...but live and sleep at pavements, parks, railway in temporary structures without walls under plastic sheets or thatch roofs on pavements.”

Concerning this, Chennai Corporation became a pioneer in providing protection and initiated the Shelter for Homeless Programme in 1992. A case was filed by ER Kumar against the Union of India in 2003 regarding the right to shelter homeless persons in urban areas. As a result, the Scheme of Shelters for Urban Homeless in 2013 under the National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM) came into being, which was subsequently renamed in 2015 as the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana (DAY). This program aims to offer permanent shelters with basic amenities for the homeless in urban areas and acknowledges their economic contribution to the development of the city. A few schemes were implemented and revamped between 1992 and 2005, they were eventually withdrawn because of poor utilisation of funds.

With 10 functional shelter homes, Chennai Corporation proposed 15 more complying with the launched scheme in 2013. As per the guidelines, for every lakh people, one shelter must be created. By the end of 2015, 28 operational homes were incepted. In 2023, under the Greater Chennai Corporation’s (GCC) monitor, the city now has 50 homes and 10 special shelters (hospitals). These centres are run by NGOs with financial aid from GCC.

Shelter homes serve as spaces where people can access government housing and livelihood programmes, along with food, and education for all of the children residing there. “We approach girls above 18 to move to our home. Only when they are willing to, we bring them here,” says Sharmamukil, working at Integrated Women Development Institute (IWDI). The dwellers then sign a modus operandi at the nearest police station. “Once they come here,we take care of them. We provide them with food, clothing, shelter and teach them a skill so they could set up their livelihood,” she says, adding that the central government provides money for one meal per individual daily.

Open sky to four walls

“The Central government gives Rs 22 for night tiffin. There are NGOs that outsource meals and clothing,” says Madhan*, a member of one of the volunteer NGOs. He adds that the number of homeless are increasing day by day and the number of shelter homes is not on par with that. “Once placed on a job, inmates come out of the shelter home but under the same name, a different MO is signed in some other police station,” he shares.

Working as a sanitary worker, Kumar who lives on the Railway Station Road, St Thomas Mount, was moved to a shelter home but he found his way back to the street. “I like it better here,” he says. He came to the city as a visitor and had no money to go back so he settled on the streets. “I miss my wife and children but I don’t know how they will see me if I go back after years of living here,” says Kumar adding, “I have friends here who help me with dinner. I work in the mornings and at night I come here to eat and sleep. Nimmadhi iruku adhu podhum (I have peace here and that is enough)”.

It is also important to note that there are homeless who still cannot find opportunities too. There are tribal communities that go unnoticed and have been on the streets for generations now, battling life with every changing season.

“There is a need for evolving ‘summer plan’ and ‘monsoon plan’ for individuals and families. The summer plan should include provisions for identifying areas with high concentrations of homeless persons who live or work and may be more prone to heat strokes and other heat-related illnesses. To create water distribution points across the city where homeless people live — either through the installation of water distribution points or by providing drinking water tankers for families to prevent dehydration and deaths during the summer,” says Vanessa Peter, founder of the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC).

She also suggests, “The establishment of cooling areas in concentration areas with provision of water, food, toilets, and first-aid to counter the impact of the heat. To ensure that the elders, persons with disabilities, children, pregnant women and lactating mothers in street situations are prioritised in these interventions.”

Some still look out for their families to come and take them home like Laxmi to Kumar who is scared to go back home, every homeless person has a story to tell. A story about the life they are living by themselves as Neil Gaiman writes in his ‘The Graveyard Book’, ‘Wherever you go, you take yourself with you’.

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The New Indian Express