Left ‘out’: Homeless people in Kochi
With the monsoons round the corner, TNIE reporter Mahima Anna Jacob and lensman T P Sooraj takes a look at the woes of homeless people in the city
KOCHI: It’s past 10 pm. The daily grind of the city is slowly coming to a lull. Vytilla junction, however, is chaotic as usual, with a steady flow of people returning home after work and traffic snarls. At Kannadikadu nearby, a man curls up inside a worn-out mosquito net atop concrete electric posts stacked on the roadside.
“I have been on the road for over a decade now,” says Joy, 63, a ragpicker. “These sidewalks and bus stops are my home.” Joy says he got the mosquito net from junk. It is torn, and can barely keep away the swarming mosquitoes.
“Vytilla junction is noisy,” he smiles. “Here it is relatively peaceful, as only a few use this path. I have been here for a month now. After my parents passed away, there was a family dispute, and I ended up on the streets. When it rains, I seek refuge at bus stops or under the metro rails.”
On the way to Panampilly Nagar, we spot a couple and their perky dog, Jackie, settling down for the night by a metro pillar near the GCDA office. Selvam, 55, and Lakshmi, 50, who hail from Ooty, have made this spot their home for over four years now.
Selvam lies down on discarded cardboard sheets, while Lakshmi spreads a torn cotton mattress. Both huddle up in their little ‘home’ amid whizzing vehicles. Jackie stays alert and keeps vigil, pricking up his ears on every movement nearby.
“I’m a daily wager. My wife can’t work because she suffered a debilitating injury to her hand,” says Selvam. “Being exposed to pollution, heat, and dust, I have developed breathing difficulties. I have not gone to work for four days. Some kind people offer us food, and we share it with Jackie.”
Selvam sits up, gasping for breath. Lakshmi rubs his back to comfort him as yet another night passes by.
Near the Ernakulam Junction railway station, a group of people lie down on the pavement, in the open. They light up mosquito-repellent incense sticks propped up on their rubber sandals or plastic bottles.
“This is the only protection we have against diseases such as dengue,” says Lal, a daily wager from Bihar. The 28-year-old complains he lost his belongings after sleeping in the open a month ago. Rats, he adds, are a big nuisance. “Sometimes they bite us. We have to bear with such issues,” sighs Lal.
“It would be great if there was a night shelter for people who toil during the day. I cannot afford to rent a place; my children and wife back home survive on my meagre income.”
Violation of rights
There are hundreds of homeless souls like Joy, Selvam, Lakshmi and Lal, who hope for night shelters in the city. In 2021, the Kerala High Court directed the state government to ensure sufficient night shelters for the homeless, while disposing of a public interest litigation filed by the late activist lawyer Basil Attipetty. He had argued that the official apathy was a violation of the rights conferred under Article 21 of the Constitution.
Under the Durbala Jana Vibhagam project, three NGOs in Ernakulam district receive grants from the state government – Christuraja Prayer Centre in Piravom houses 66 homeless people, Abhaya Bhavan in Koovappady shelters 51, and Bethlehem Abhaya Bhavan in Koovappady about 40.
The corporation’s Welfare Standing Committee chairperson Sheeba Lal explains there are shelter homes under the civic body in the city, but places that accommodate street dwellers are scarce. “The Palluruthy relief settlement, Good Hope in Fort Kochi and Snehabhavan Annexe in Kammattipadam are some
that take in destitute people,” she says.
‘Shelter homes lack space’
Social activist Murugan Theruvoram, who has been rescuing the destitute from the streets for two decades, says the existing shelter homes are usually reluctant to accommodate the homeless.
“Many of the existing shelter homes in the city are full,” he adds. “The majority of the homeless in Kochi are from other states. The state government’s plan to send them to their respective states has not been executed properly.”
The Palluruthy relief settlement currently houses 89 men and 39 women. “Sending them back to their states isn’t an easy process. We do not have enough space to accommodate more people,” says superintendent Suni Francis.
“Also, we do not admit people with severe mental issues, as we don’t have qualified staff to manage them or separate cells to house them.” The Snehabhavan Annexe is currently in a dilapidated state and has just nine inmates. “During rains, the place gets inundated. The women’s shelter on the top floor, too, is a shambles,” says Fr Bino Mathew. “If the place is maintained well, it can house about 40 people. The corporation is yet to take action.”
Corp planning to open night shelter
Kochi Mayor M Anilkumar admits the city has not dwelled enough on the concept of night shelters after the high court directive. “The Kochi corporation alone can’t run shelter homes, support from NGOs, and the state government is also required. Before I took charge, the concept was attempted, however, it was a failure,” he says. “The city does not have enough land to set up such settlements. Setting up shelter homes will attract more destitute people to the city.” Anilkumar, however, assures the administration will soon invitie NGOs to run a night-stay facility. “The project first requires a proper study,” he adds.