‘Stay indoors, they say, but what if you have nowhere to go’: The grim outdoors for Mumbai’s homeless

With an estimated population of over two lakh, activists and NGOs categorise the city's homeless as a “high risk” group with no access to safe spaces, proper hygiene.




Less than an hour after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown, Sana Shaikh, 34, mother of two, who stays on a street in Parel said, “Yeh sab bol rahein hain ghar ke andar jao. Aap batao hum log jiska ghar nahin hai, woh kya karein (They are asking people to stay indoors, but what about those who have nowhere to go)?.”

As India grapples with an unprecedented shutdown prompted by the coronavirus outbreak, mass closures have left Mumbai’s homeless at a vulnerable position: they have nowhere to go, but they cannot stay in public places.

Mumbai, with the most coronavirus cases in India, has an estimated homeless population of two lakh, and while everyone has been told to practise social distancing and to frequently wash their hands, the homeless are living just as they did before the outbreak.

“Nobody has come here. Nobody has said anything,” says Sana, who works as a domestic help to earn a living. The major concern among charities is that a majority of the homeless population is not even accounted for. The 2011 Census has recorded only 57,416 homeless.

“There are over two lakh homeless in Mumbai with a majority staying on the road for generations altogether,” said Brijesh Arya, convenor, Homeless Collective, an umbrella outfit representing organisations working for the homeless and rough sleepers in the city.

“(The government) first announced a day’s curfew on Sunday. And has now shuttered public facilities for 21 days. Where do we go? What do we do?” asks Sana. Her 15-year-old elder son, Mohammed Salim Shaikh, who studies in a nearby municipal school, had his final examination postponed owing to the outbreak. Sana says her employers — she works at two apartments in the locality – have asked her not to come to work till April 1.

“I don’t know if they will give me my full salary,” she adds. While authorities are advocating social distancing measures, the homeless on Sayani Road, where Sana stays with her children, live in close quarters and hygiene is almost non-existent.

To make matters worse, many public facilities the homeless rely on have been shuttered. Sana’s neighbour, Satya Malla, 30, says her family of seven went without food on Tuesday. They have gone without bathing for three days due to mass closure of public facilities.

“We’ve exhausted the little money we had. With people staying indoors, even begging is not possible,” she says. According to Satya, she came to stay on the streets five months ago from Haryana in search of her husband who has gone missing. Since then, she has been staying with her mother, Papabai Dudhi, 56, on the road.

Satya, a mother of three, has been working at construction sites while Papabai sells scrap collected from waste bins. “We haven’t earned a single rupee in the last five days,” Satya says. Her family is unaware that the authorities have invoked Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, banning the gathering of four or more persons in public places. “The other day, police came here to threaten us to leave. But where do we go?” she asks.

Sitaram Shelar, director, Centre for Promoting Democracy, claimed that the government was “not recognising the needs of the homeless”.

“We have been receiving panic calls from certain places about police driving the homeless away. Where will they go?” he asks. Arya recommended that the government must secure food, water and milk supplies for the homeless, and give them 24-hour access to public toilets.

Shelar added, “There is a misconception that most homeless are beggars. Many working communities, who cannot afford to buy or rent a house or a hutment in this city, stay on the streets.”

Going home is what Raju Rajbhar, 38, a truck driver, employed on contractual basis with a multinational company in Andheri (East), wants. Rajbhar, a native of Mau in Uttar Pradesh, owns a farm in his village but spends the night on the road in Mumbai.

“I’ve been driving a truck in Mumbai for two years,” he says. When Maharashtra first declared shutdown measures on March 21, Rajbhar was among those who tried returning home. “But I was stranded after long-distance trains were cancelled on Sunday. There are cases being reported in UP as well. I want to return, but I’m stuck here with no work, no money,” he says.

Rajbhar says he has got no work for four days now. Bashir Qureshi, 28, a tempo driver in Kurla, also wants to return home to his native Gonda district (also in UP).

Citing examples of western countries, who have commandeered empty hotels to self-isolate the homeless, Arya and Shelar sought temporary shelters for homeless, saying the community was a “high-risk” group.

Mukta Shirke, 60, an asthma patient, who begs outside a Jogeshwari temple for a living, says the closure of temples has made even access to daily medicines difficult.

“This is real-life drama. For us homeless, who are already fragile, the virus scare is like a double penalty,” says Ram Singh, 74, who begs outside the Prabhadevi temple near Dadar. Singh, who identifies himself as a Vyjayanthimala fan, fled from Bihar and came to Mumbai in 1973, pulled by his love for Bollywood.

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