Opinion: Mitigating the perils of homelessness

One square meal a day, basic clothes to wear and a roof above the head. If one possesses these, then he/she can consider to be better off than 75% of the world’s population. And if one has a bank account, then he/she is among the richest 8% of the world’s population as 80% of people do not possess one.
Opinion: Mitigating the perils of homelessness

Chennai

Basic necessities still elude the majority of the world population and the worst affliction is homelessness. Man, from millennia, has been on the move in search of greener pastures but only a few among them are able to make it as the rest languish. Increasing urbanisation has led to an exodus of people from villages and their natural habitat to urban areas in search of jobs and in the hope of better living conditions. But ultimately, in the congested cities, they are forced to wallow in filth and squalor.

There are several lakhs of homeless people in India, with nearly 50% of them based in urban areas. There is always difficulty in assessing the exact number of homeless people as data available is only an indicative figure while the actual number will be much more. Nearly over one crore people in the country lack access to decent housing.

Causes of homelessness are poverty, loss of jobs, mental illness, deinstitutionalization of mental patients, parental neglect, domestic violence, old age with none to look after, substance abuse and so on.

In urban areas, where there is always pressure for space, there is mushrooming of slums, many coming up with the connivance of local goondas and politicians. This becomes a breeding ground for crime and when the situation goes out of control, there is demand to vacate these slums.

Slums are mostly encroachments, and as part of city beautification programme, these slums face evacuation. Sometimes, gentrification takes place with the moneyed class slowly edging away the poor when the latter find it expensive to remain in that area. In all these cases, the net result is homelessness.

It is not as if homelessness affects only the developing countries. Some of the advanced countries like the US, the UK and several European countries, too, face the problem of homeless people.

In a survey conducted in a single night in 2018, nearly 5.6 lakh people were found to be experiencing homelessness which meant 17 out of ten thousand people in America were homeless that night. Mostly, about 67% were individuals and the remainder 33% were families with children. Women and children are the worst affected by homelessness. Among the worst affected ten states in the US are California and New York. Indians visiting the US would have seen the familiar sight of homeless people assembling in parks, waiting for charity. They also throng many Hindu temples and ISKCON centres where a sumptuous meal is served as prasad. The situation is equally grim in the UK, France, Italy, Belgium and Russia. In those countries, homelessness is linked to human trafficking where there are agents who promise jobs and deploy them as cheap labour with no guarantee of sustenance and in due course, they are forced to fend for themselves. When there is no alternative livelihood, they succumb to drug peddling and flesh trade. Terrorists make use of these hapless people for their last mile connectivity in terror acts.

Scott Leckie, an international expert on human rights who has been championing the rights of homeless people, stated, “Homelessness persists on a vast scale in both rich and poor countries because of economic and political disregard for the human rights of the poor.” Scott is the founder and director of Displacement Solutions and is creating awareness worldwide on issues faced by homeless people and their housing land and property rights (HLP).

Senior citizens face multiple problems. On the one hand, they have to contend with geriatric ailments and on the other, neglect by their own children precisely because of the economic burden of maintaining them. Many old people from north India are forced to board the south-bound trains and they just wander in the cities. Chennai faces this problem of not only having neglected old people but also mentally ill patients-mostly women who are no longer wanted by their families.

It is equally unfortunate that from the south, many old people are just abandoned in north Indian cities by ungrateful families. The result is again an increase in the number of homeless people.

The failure to take care of parents has penal provisions in the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007. This legislation, enacted in 2007 and initiated by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India intends to provide effective maintenance and welfare of parentsand senior citizens.

Homelessness also leads to inter-generational crime as children of those incarcerated in crime cases are abandoned by their own families and are caught in the vortex of crime. Police have a role to play in preventing homelessness in view of its adverse impact on incidents of crime.

An avowed objective of the Government of India is that every Indian should have a house by 2022. Homeless people are those who live in “the open or roadside pavements, in hume pipes, under flyovers and staircases, or in open in places of worship, mandaps, railway platforms, etc.”

The National Urban Livelihoods Mission launched in 2013 to provide a source of income to the urban poor to reduce homelessness failed to fulfil the objective due to flawed implementation. The Supreme Court has mandated that governments should provide one night’s shelter for every one lakh population. In Chennai city, there are 53 night shelters and more being built. Many migrant labourers find this facility very useful. There are also NGOs which provide food for thesehomeless people.

Tamil Nadu has launched an ambitious scheme of housing for poor in all cities and rural areas. The aim is to have slum-free cities and houses for all in rural areas. Nearly 1.62 lakh houses are proposed to be built for which approval for an outlay of Rs 6635 crore has been obtained from the Central government.  

The National Human Rights Commission has time and again emphasised that housing is a human right which cannot be denied. Housing should not remaina pipe dream.

—The writer is MylaporeMLA and former DGP

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