Running a Homeless Complex isn’t Easy

ACORN International Amazon Human Rights India

            Delhi      Surveying ACORN/Janaphal’s work in Delhi, we had a cycle of meetings scheduled with leaders of the community organization near the office, organizers on the Amazon project, and leaders from the Delhi branch of the Hawkers’ Joint Action Committee.  We also were going to visit one of the shelters we have run for more than a decade in different parts of the city.  Having seen a number of these outposts in the past, I almost begged off of the journey, but after hours of meetings, what the heck, it’ll be good to get out in the city and see what’s happening, Delhi smog and horrific pollution be damned.

The shelter was hardly 20 minutes from our offices.  Staff told me it was near a railway station and the construction site for a new expansion of the metro subway system.  Leaving the office, I pointed out a location as we passed one of the sites years ago that we managed as a temporary night shelter for migrant workers.  What used to be a tent-style affair was now sturdier and more permanent.

We arrived to what seemed like chaos, even for Delhi.  Hundreds of auto-rickshaws were jockeying for position along a muddy dirt track lined by hawkers’ shops of all descriptions.  Our cab kept wanting to stop and our guide, Mansour, kept pushing him on towards the shelter, which I still couldn’t see.  Finally, we came to a stop in front of a metal gate and were let in by security.

This was different and not at all what I had expected.  We were now inside a complex of tents and more permanent buildings.  I quickly found out that not only were we not running night shelters for the Delhi Municipal Corporation, but that they had all been converted to homeless housing.  The tents stand from November to the end of March and were designed to accommodate the surges during the winter, when people are hard pressed to live on the streets.  The buildings separated families from single men and women.  Children and dogs were everywhere.

The place was teeming.  The staff, some of whom I recognized from past visits, told me that the population was around 1000.  I asked what it was like for them to be mayors of a small city, and our team quickly corrected me, saying they provided services for a semi-permanent population.  The more we walked around, the easier it was to see the point.  There was schooling and computer room.  There was clinic.  Kitchen facilities existed for meals we prepared and for those people made themselves.  There was a giant washer where as one told me, they “tried to wash all the bedding weekly.”  Looking into several of the resident spaces with a capacity of 150 or so, there were rows of beds with curtains on runners that could be pulled down for some privacy.  Shooing flies away constantly, this was no paradise, but it was doing the job and people seemed to be a home.

Under the current contract with the DMC and DUSIB, this facility was the biggest we were managing for them, but one of thirty that we were handling all together.  It was impressive, warts and all.  I wondered how we integrated all of this with the rest of our organizing, advocacy, campaigns, initiatives, and networks, but those were questions for later since we had another group of leaders waiting to meet with us back at the office.