Working with the homeless in Mumbai
Homelessness stares Mumbai in the face on every street. India’s financial capital and its richest city, is also where many thousands sleep rough because they have been lured by the big city lights and the promise of a better life. According to the 2011 census, Mumbai has over 57,416 homeless residents but the actual figure is far higher – civil rights organisations state the figure is closer to 200,000.
According to the Indian government’s definition, homeless or houseless are those who live in “open or roadside, pavements, in hume-pipes, under flyovers and staircases or in open places of worship, mandaps, railway platforms etc. However, when it comes to providing the homeless community with basic needs, successive governments have failed them.
Living in a hume pipe – Mother getting her child ready for school
Living on the streets
For the homeless, the streets become their homes. They may be homes without safety, without privacy, without roofs to protect them from heavy rains and without walls to keep the winter winds at bay but homes nevertheless.
As they face challenges on a number of fronts, they build their resilience to exposure to extreme weather in summer and winter. The high risk of road accidents and the constant threat of sexual violence are but to name a few. Homeless people also suffer from bad health and extremely limited access to medical facilities. Many live in nondescript public spaces, ranging from bus and train terminals to commercial junctions and places of worship. For them, each location has a memory associated with it, be it the porches of shops that sheltered them in the rain or busy pavements where they have lost loved ones.
Over the last few years, the drastic transformation of Mumbai in the form of various development projects mean that the homeless have been subjected to increasingly frequent evictions, demolitions and displacement. Given the fact that the authorities can come un-announced at any time and as urban governing bodies increase restrictions on people dwelling on the streets, the homeless are forced to remain one step ahead keeping their belongings packed at all times, in order to save their bare essentials from being seized.
Life on the streets
We don’t need coins, we need change
Obtaining ID is a crucial step in escaping homelessness. Identity documents are used for multiple purposes, principally to obtain government benefits. Homeless people face unsurmountable barriers to obtaining ID. When people become homeless it makes it much harder to find a place to shelter and in many cases even stay at a homeless shelter. They cannot access all the services they desperately need because they do not have an address. Without an address, they can’t open a bank account, obtain a mobile phone contract, access the internet, find employment or indeed gain entrance to government buildings so they can apply for an I.D document. Onefully understands the value of official documentation, when the simplest things like buying a train ticket is not possible due to having inadequate paperwork.
What we are doing
Kamla Foundation has partnered with a remarkable charity based in Mumbai called Pehchan, (pehchanindia.org). The word ‘pehchan’ translates as ‘identity’ in Hindi and provides the cornerstone for their work. Pehchan works to bring positive change to the lives of those that live on the streets of Mumbai. It started as a people-led homeless rights initiative back in 2011. Pehchan now campaigns and lobbies the state government on behalf of the homeless community on a series of key issues affecting them.
The primary aim of this collaboration is helping Pehchan to become efficient and speed up its ability to provide the homeless with a ‘state acknowledged identity’. These documents are essential to link people to government schemes, welfare benefits and entitlements such as pensions and healthcare.
Leaders from the homeless community will be recruited and schooled in filling forms, completing applications and other necessary formalities in order for the homeless to gain identity documentation.
Once the first cohort have been fully trained, they will be tasked with steering members of the homeless community through the arduous process of applying for identity documents. They then will be charged with recruiting a new cohort and have the responsibility to deliver the same intensive training and support. Pehchan will be working closely with the cohort to provide ongoing advice, guidance and related support.
We hope the initial ‘ripple effect’ will create an army of volunteers, which in time will grow into a bank of expertise for members of the homeless community to exploit when needed. In parallel to helping the homeless obtain these vital documents, we will also conduct regular document verification outreach camps.
Finally, to challenge the incessant negative narrative of the homeless community, we will develop a high profile information campaign, engaging a variety of civic stakeholders (students, business leaders, academics, community leaders and influencers). We will host a series of interactive workshops using a range of tools such as visual media, photography and theatrical plays – highlighting the plight of the homeless community and explore ways in which these stakeholders may able to support our work in the future.
Uncertainty is the only certainty there is and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security – John Allen Paulos, an American Professor