ACORN in Delhi Offers Alternatives to the “Sleep Mafia”

WP_20151204_10_56_12_ProNew Orleans   It is not every day when the work of ACORN and its affiliates is written between the lines of major stories in The New York Times, but recently that was the case in a glaring, tragic story about the so-called “sleep mafia” in Delhi.

The story of privatized sleep follows a familiar pattern in this city: After decades of uncontrolled growth, the city government’s inability to provide services like health care, water, transportation and security has given rise to thriving private industries, efficient enough to fulfill the needs of those who can pay. But shelter, given Delhi’s extremes of heat and cold, is often a matter of survival. The police report collecting more than 3,000 unidentifiable bodies from the streets every year, typically men whose health broke down after years living outdoors. Winter presents especially brutal choices to homeless laborers, who have no place to protect blankets from thieves in the daytime hours. Some try to hide them in the tops of trees.

In this overview, that’s a statement of the problem and the city’s response is somewhat explained by an Indian Supreme Court decision.

A cluster of “pavement dweller” deaths prompted India’s Supreme Court to rule in 2010 that the country’s large cities must provide shelter for 0.1 percent of the population. This winter, Delhi expanded its shelter system to accommodate more than 18,000, but the number of homeless is vast — likely more than 100,000….

As always it’s more complicated than simply some poor people taking advantage of even poorer people, as sleep wallas rent blankets for 20 or 30 rupees a night to the homeless. Many of this number are migrant workers in from the vast, imperiled rural countryside of India, trying to find a way to make a living, rather than how many might read the story and equate the situation in a kneejerk fashion to homelessness in the US. It’s as bad, but it is also somewhat different.

Furthermore there is worse story of Delhi’s efforts to privatize the problem of shelter. ACORN for several years was one of a number of nonprofits that ran several sleeping shelters for migrant workers in various districts of the city, including a large facility in a Delhi Municipal Corporation building in Old Delhi. In 2015 most of the nonprofits, including ACORN’s affiliates were pushed out when the city tried to outsource the problem in a bidding scheme that divided the city into huge regions allowing larger private enterprises to capitalize on the process and squeeze experienced nonprofits out of more effective support for the workers. After the failure of that system the city now has had to revert in many cases back to better operators. Recently I heard from Dharmendra Kumar, ACORN’s director in Delhi, that we had been awarded several new contracts and had a number of the ones we had lost in 2015 returned to us.

What do we do? As Dharmendra reports:

Janpahal, a Delhi based affiliate of ACORN International in association with Govt of Delhi is running and managing five shelters for homeless namely at Shakarpur, Ganesh Nagar, Yamuna Khadar, Akshardham and Geeta Colony. The shelters are free with many facilities including clean mattress, bed sheets, blankets, quilts, drinking water, electricity, toilets, bathroom, first aid box, lockers, daily newspaper, morning tea, breakfast, counselling and sanitary napkins. Free tuitions are provided to school going homeless children. Facilities for entertainment and sports are also available. Along with daily morning tea and healthy breakfast, fresh and hot food for dinner are also being served on sundays. We run various awareness programmes and programs to link homeless with government services and skill development programs. Special awareness drive was conducted on drug-deaddiction, HIV/AIDS, TB etc. Homeless residents of these shelters collectively celebrate festivals and have created a creative corner in all shelters. Recently, a film festival was organized from christmas to New year.

When I shared the Times article with Dharmendra he also sent along a picture of a “rescue” vehicle that we are using that combs the streets of Delhi between 10 PM and 4 AM in the morning locating homeless who are sleeping rough and bring them to the nearest shelter.

None of this is enough, but bringing organizations and advocates back into the picture this year restores a voice for the poor and dispossessed that offers hope for expansion of services rather than the ill-fated mega-privatization schemes.

More needs to be done, but organizations like ACORN and its affiliates are leading the way in pushing for a solution and offering help and support in the meantime.

****

Janpahal, a Delhi based affiliate of ACORN International in association with Govt of Delhi is running and managing five shelters for homeless namely at Shakarpur, Ganesh Nagar, Yamuna Khadar, Akshardham and Geeta Colony. The shelters are free with many facilities including clean mattress, bed sheets, blankets, quilts, drinking water, electricity, toilets, bathroom, first aid box, lockers, daily newspaper, morning tea, breakfast, counseling and sanitary napkins. Free tuition are provided to school going homeless children. Facilities for entertainment and sports are also available. Along with daily morning tea and healthy breakfast, fresh and hot food for dinner are also being served on Sundays. We run various awareness programmes and programs to link homeless with government services and skill development programs. Special awareness drive was conducted on drug-addiction, HIV/AIDS, TB etc. Homeless residents of these shelters collectively celebrate festivals and has created a creative corner in all shelters. Recently, a film festival was organized from Christmas to New Year.

Poster of film festival Local Legislator playing santa and distributing gifts to homeless kids on christmas Homeless Kids with their Christmas gifts Homeless kids enjoying movie Fresh and hot food being served to homeless Feeding Homeless Kids Feeding Homeless Kid Creative corner by Homeless

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Kinder and Gentler Pilots for Homeless and Elderly

 Panhandlers dug up weeds along a side street in Albuquerque as part of a new program in the city. Credit Mark Holm for The New York Times

Panhandlers dug up weeds along a side street in Albuquerque as part of a new program in the city. Credit Mark Holm for The New York Times

New Orleans    I visit my 92-year old mother every day when I’m in New Orleans. She has 24-hour care, and we’re lucky and fortunate to be able to keep her at home. She eats well, but limited mobility means hours and hours in a big, comfortable arm chair. She reads with a magnifying glass while waiting for new glasses. The TV is on, and new hearing aids may make a difference. We’re looking for a lapdog. She cherishes every minute with the family and doesn’t complain or ask for anything more. Her general health is good, and we trust her caregivers, while we worry continually, but we often wonder about the quality of her life.

I read with interest one of those filler, throw-away articles in the living section of one of the local newspapers about a woman named Jessica Delk who runs something called Someplace Special for the Warren-Yazoo Mental Health Department in Mississippi over the last more than a dozen years. They see themselves as a socialization center. They handle less than 20 seniors at a time who are referred to them because of a mental health diagnosis like depression. They come in crying, sad, sleepless, and isolated. They eat, they exercise, they have discussions, and they take field trips. Sounds good doesn’t it? I think about whether my mother would enjoy something like this, but as good as this sounds, it’s temporary. It’s also a Band-Aid over a bleeding ocean. Twenty musical chairs for thousands there, tens of thousands in Mississippi, and millions in America. We don’t do daycare well for children, how can we imagine doing better for the elderly. Not because we don’t know how or because other countries don’t do much, much better, but because as a society we see these situations as personal problems, private burdens, and family matters.

We also coast along, because this is just the way things are.

We watch the homeless on the corners with a can, under the expressways, sleeping on steps and doorways, and that becomes part of the passing scene as well. The Times ran a story of a new program in Albuquerque that was interesting. A van drove through the campsites and public hideaways of the homeless offering one day of work in cleanup with lunch, transportation, and tools provided and $9 per hour pay for any takers. The story told of some who declined, but a bunch who accepted. The city hopes it makes a difference and moves someone on a better path. Maybe yes, maybe no, but to the degree it is an attitude adjustment in the way they look at the homeless, it’s a great step in the right direction: a hand up, rather than a slap down. Ironically, but movingly, the program is paid for out of a $5 million settlement the City paid to the family of a homeless man with mental health issues that was wrongly killed by the police.

These conditions are difficult but not intractable, but it takes fierce public and political will to steer a different course. But, honestly, if it can be done in the Delta of Mississippi and the wild, independent West of Albuquerque, what’s stopping us elsewhere?

Marina Kaye – Homeless

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