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.

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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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Organizing through the Shelters in Delhi

ITO shelter today

Bengaluru   The Commonwealth Games are the old British Empire’s continued footprint in the former colonies every several years as athletes’ troop in between the Olympics, and when India hosted the games for the first time in Delhi in the fall of 2010, this was to be a star turn for the city on the world stage.  The results can be seen in a number of newly built flyovers (expressways) and other capital improvements particularly in the Metro and the airport.  In the wake of other problems tourism did not reach expected heights and what turns out to have been significant corruption marred the construction and the media’s spin on the games.

For ACORN and our work in Delhi it also meant still dealing with the forced slum removal around the Income Tax Office (ITO) and the 70,000 people that lived in the ITO slums.   In the wake of the disastrous Commonwealth Games we ended up agreeing to manage a “night shelter” across from where the athletes’ housing had been built in the path of the old slums for many of our members who were bicycle rickshaw pullers pushed out of work and off the streets during the games with little livelihood and no income.  When I visited in 2011 we were still waiting for the urban department to reimburse us for the staffing cost for maintaining the tent and tarp structure over that winter after the Games.  Now a year later, the winter has turned into the a year round shelter, the tents have become corrugated, hard walls with solar power, water, and portable toilets, and the one shelter has become four with two on either side of the expressway around the old ITO and the huge Akshardham Temple and the Metro station of the same name in East Delhi.

Akshardham Temple and the flyover

The other two shelters are also in areas where we have a large concentration of members in central Delhi one, a permanent building is near the Delhi Gate in the warren of narrow streets and slender alleys between the buildings of Old Delhi only feet away from the walled city and the Red Fort.  The other temporary structure is hardly a kilometer down the highway from the new civic center that houses the Delhi government and is near the old Azmeri Gate to the old city.   Added together the centers we manage have a theoretical capacity of 250 men, but when the weather is cool, that number is always over 300 and sometimes close to 400 packed in every night.

Permanent shelter in Old Delhi

At first blush an organizer might think that this is a “captive audience” and the organizing could be layered casually across the time, but practically our centers in most locations go from empty to full up and force the work to be done “on the run.”  Informal work is hard work at exceedingly low pay stretched over many hours.  Our rickshaw pullers for example tend to not come into the shelter until after 11 PM when the last loads are driven from the Metro stops to homes.  At 6 AM many are back up on the rickshaw pulling people to work and trying to string their money together for the day and pay the rent on the rickshaw to the owner.  Every morning there is a time in each of the centers where our organizers read the daily paper to the men.  The allotment of staffing on the contracts has allowed us to divide some of the hours into more people doing our community organizing work so that there is one organizer per shelter.  Many of the men join the organization and are able to stay active and each center is a mini-office of sorts.   Capacity has increased for ACORN Delhi, but unfortunately there are only so many hours in the day.

Years ago had we planned to run such shelters?  No, absolutely not, but in organizing, you do what has to be done, and adapt the tools to the construction of the organization as they come to your hand, and that’s what Dharmendra Kumar and his team with ACORN Delhi have taken to task to move their mission.

Here I am with Dharmendra Kumar (left) and some of our organizing staff at the shelters

 

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