New Delhi: Wearing a thin sweater, with a shawl wrapped around her lean frame, 60-year-old Mumtaz sat on a plastic mat on a traffic island next to the Oberoi flyover. A stray dog snuggled up to her while she stared vacantly at the traffic passing by from all sides. It was evening. And unlike the teeming masses rushing to get home for some warmth, Mumtaz was in no hurry. A small backpack with a few clothes is all that she owns. After a shelter for women and children was demolished last year by DDA, she has been on the streets.
An all-male night shelter in the area has been reorganised to make space for women and children, and for others the night shelters at Sarai Kale Khan have been cited as an option. However, it is clear that both options are not proving to be a solution for those who still live under and around the flyover here. Many beg and their reasons for not going to the night shelters range from excuses to some genuine concerns.
Mumtaz, who belongs to Kolkata, says she has no family. She appears to be indifferent to the hazards of the severe cold as she points at a corner under the flyover. That’s where she sleeps at night, covering herself with the two blankets she has in her possession. It is evident that she survives on the generosity of others. When we prod her to explain why she does not want to go to the nearby night shelter, she murmurs: “First I used to live at a shelter near Bangla Saheb. When it got burnt some years ago, I came to this flyover. Here I used to live in the shelter for women and children which got demolishedlast year. Now, I don’t want to go anywhere, I am fine on the streets.”
There are many like her who have different reasons to stay out and their reluctance to go to a shelter despite the fear of the cold impacting their health has got Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) worried. DUSIB has written to the department of social welfare and revenue asking them to help rescue and rehabilitate such homeless under various schemes and in different welfare homes.
A letter to this effect was written in December too. A survey by DUSIB field staff of spaces where there is concentration of homeless persons who were found living in the open and were reluctant to go to shelters has revealed that there are 1600 such spots. Now a fresh survey is being conducted as the cold is at its peak.
On an average, the 20 rescue teams that patrol the streets to take homeless to the night shelters have reported 100 to 250 homeless refusing to go to a shelter daily. They are most vulnerable to the weather and convincing them is a huge challenge.
Another homeless walking past Mumtaz answers for her as though empathising with her. “It must be difficult to adjust with families in the shelter. Perhaps, that’s the reason why she prefers to shiver in the cold than go inside,” he says before crossing the road. When asked where she would want to go, she said, “Kahin door bhej dijiyey par yahan naihin. (Send me somewhere far but not here.)” She nods in agreement when asked if she would prefer to go to a home for elderly.