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Housing the homeless: Understanding demand can help create robust housing strategy

Homelessness is a concern in cities across the world, both in the more developed Global North and in the Global South, where poverty and inequality are of urgent concern. Yet, from my broad readings on the subject, the connection between homelessness and housing appears to be tenuous in the eyes of policymakers. And increasingly, in the modus operandi of NGOs as well.

Let me explain. While it appears rational that the response to the problem of homelessness must be an attempt to increase access and supply to affordable housing, responses to homelessness are nearly entirely focused on addressing its manifestations. Soup kitchens, temporary shelters, education and healthcare interventions, usually spearheaded by NGOs, are some examples.

The gap in housing policy has been bothering me for a while, but I was emboldened to write about it today after reading my friend Carlin’s piece that frames these concerns rather directly. She posits that India’s ability to provide shelter to the homeless will hugely contribute to the success of the much-feted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Her piece focuses on Court-directed pressure on Indian State governments to build homeless shelters. However, my sense as a housing expert is that there needs to be some thinking around other housing options for the urban poor. Unless there are housing mobility choices available for city dwellers, income notwithstanding, a discuss focused on the building and management of night shelters seems to be a piecemeal and unsustainable solution.

There are gaping holes in what we know about how the poor, homeless included, make housing choices. We know even less about what would their ideal choices be. Because of these gaps, good intentions often translate into poor policy.

Governments find it easy to promote supply-side interventions like homeless shelters or even rental housing, something that has appeared more aggressively on the agenda of late. The Government of India’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation recently brought out a Draft Urban Rental Housing Policy, which recognizes the homeless as a “vulnerable” group to which social rental housing supply should be directed. In Odisha, the State government is exploring the construction of rented accommodation for informal sector workers, particularly in construction.

More needs to be known about the demand side of the housing market. The choices and preferences of the urban poor must form as much a part of the housing strategies of Indian cities as those of middle- and high-income home renters and buyers (research on the latter is thin as well!). This is one of the essential first steps towards achieving a functional urban housing market.

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Informed and inspired by the SSA Workshop on Urban Poverty in Mumbai

Of the 40-odd people who attended this workshop on the 11th of December in Mumbai, most came in not knowing what to expect. Urban poverty is a term that confuses and confounds many, even among those of us who work in the development sector. Lina Sonne from Intellecap, which brings out the Searchlight South Asia newsletter for the Rockefeller Foundation and had organized the event, pointed out that there is still an overwhelming focus on rural poverty and a need to move away from thinking of urban poverty as a problem that stems from a failure to address rural issues. Urbanization is clearly a force by itself, the urban poor face issues that are distinct and overwhelming, and there needs to be a focus on resolving these if cities are to truly be the engines of economic growth that India is pinning its hopes on.

The workshop was held at the Dutch Design Workspace, which is intimate, well located

The workshop was held at the Dutch Design Workspace, which is intimate, well located

As the first presenter, I struggled a little bit to gauge the mood, the interest areas and the expectations of the audience, which came from diverse backgrounds. Some were here to listen and learn, and there were others with a fire in their belly who were already doing really interesting things on the ground with poor communities as well as corporations that were striving to drive change through more sensitive leadership.

So I decided to focus on mHS’ vision for housing solutions that envisages a portfolio of housing options ranging from dormitories and shelters for the homeless and pavement dwellers, all the way up to ownership housing. The idea is that the urban poor are a heterogeneous bunch, every bit ambitious and enterprising as any other citizen if not more, and they should be able to self-select what sort of housing they want to live in. (Within this portfolio, mHS is currently focused on catalyzing self-construction in informal settlements through providing technical assistance in the form of engineering and architectural services to homeowners). To make this portfolio of housing possible, not only do we need policy changes and involvement from the government, but essentially there is a need to look at urban problems from an interdisciplinary perspective with the goal to make cities more inclusive and provide better opportunities for everyone.

All the sessions and discussion were captured by posters. This one sums up the mHS session

All the sessions and discussion were captured by posters. This one sums up the mHS session

The other presentations were also very interesting and a lot of the content was new to me. Abhishek Bhardwaj from Alternative Realities spoke eloquently about the homeless in Mumbai and his proposal for “housing in continuum” aligns closely with mHS’ vision. Baby Mohite and Vishnu from Swach in Pune presented the pioneering work that an association of 2200 wastepickers has done in association with Pune Municipal Corporation in being able to bring solid waste management to about 4 lakh households in the city.  This happens through door-to-door garbage collection. The wastepickers then segregate the waste, utilizing the ‘wet’ waste to produce manure and biogas and recyclable materials of all sorts are picked out of the ‘dry’ waste. The results are dramatic and the high level of innovation impressive, like the ST Dispo Bag that allows women to dispose sanitary napkins in a distinct bag so wastepickers don’t have to directly handle soiled napkins! They sell about 50,000 bags per month and all because the wastepicker women had conversations with the middle class women in the households they serve and connected on a woman-to-woman level.

I was quite touched by the presentation by young Shweta from Kranti, which is an NGO run by two spunky women to rehabilitate young girls who have grown up in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light district. Shweta, one of the ‘girls’, spoke in an endearing pseudo-accent and told us about how her confidence has grown, how she doesn’t care about what society thinks, how she is influencing her sisters to stand up for themselves back home in the red light district and how she wants to change the world. Shweta and other “krantikaris” (revolutionists) are actively involved in teaching and holding workshops with marginalized girls and children across India. Two other presentations discussed initiatives in education (Doorstep School) and health.

Looking at the posters before re-convening to discuss our takeaways from the workshop

Looking at the posters before re-convening to discuss our takeaways from the workshop

The presentations spun off some interesting discussions. One was the conflict between being innovative in addressing urban poverty through grant-funded initiatives and the need to go to scale and impact a larger number. The future of social enterprises was a concern and some felt acutely the need for social entrepreneurs to get real and find sustainable business models. Some exciting sparring happened on that one!

Another takeaway for many of us was the need for more interaction among those working in the development sector among the urban poor. There is considerable convergence in how different grassroots organizations are beginning to think about the huge problem of how to provide better quality of life for urban residents and much can be learned through sharing and collaborations.

The other life, how little we know: A peek into the mind of the homeless laborer- Sep 15, 2012

I’m reading ‘A Free Man’ by Aman Sethi. It is a peek into the lives of homeless laborers living in Delhi’s Sadar Bazar and follows closely the stories of a certain group. I know now why my mother left the book on my table a few days ago. She has read it before me and she must have known how greedily I would lap up its pages, seeing as I am soon to embark on primary research work in Gurgaon’s immigrant labor community, many of whom would have compulsions and circumstances much like the men in the book.

And yet, a homeless man is a very different sort of person. Much misunderstood, much maligned, not even considered inside the frame of reference of society as we understand it. ‘A Free Man’ hits you with the immense intelligence with which its protagonist Ashraf, a safediwala who has spent a couple decades living in Sadar Bazar’s Bara Tooti Chowk, views his life and situation. An intelligence that can make incredibly complex questions appear simple. Consider these-  Why does a many run away from home? Why do people disappear and never return? Why does the government run homeless shelters for three months a year? Where do they think those people will go the rest of the year? And then, why do they have a cell that randomly locks up homeless people considering them beggars? Who is a friend? If you have only two rupees to your name, what would you do with them- buy chai or pay for a shit?

In our work at mHS, we have tried to look at the problems of the homeless from a shelter perspective; but it is truly hard working around the government’s conflicting policies. However, the real problem with addressing homelessness is that in truth, we do really understand why someone would choose to be homeless and vulnerable (mHS is a part of a task force that is working to make homeless shelters an integral aspect of municipal infrastructure and specifically. We are working to develop a construction manual to aid local governments. Harsh Mander is spearheading this and his understanding of the homless is a lot better than anyone else’s).

In a vague sense, we all know that people leave their villages in search of employment and land up in a city. We assume most of them come for employment because their land can no longer support them. But many come for trivial reasons. Someone could have stolen a few rupees from their father and got slapped when he got found out. Another got drunk on local liquor and simple sat in a bus and found himself in a city. Yet another was insulted by his employer and did not work without honor. Yes, these are people who dream, who have a certain self respect, who hope and aspire. In that, they are much like us and we can understand that.

But because it is unimaginable for us that we could live without a roof above our heads and enough money to feed our needs, whatever they may be, we cannot understand many things. The book reveals that the homeless are also people with emotion, who react as much to heartbreak as to poverty. They value friendships and yet live lives so fragile that they dare not question when a friend disappears. They live in suspicion, yet trust everyone. They form bonds so close and yet they can walk away from everything. They drown their sorrows and the ache in their bodies in drink and smoke, but they cannot drown their sense of rootlessness, and the feeling that they have come far away from identity. They cling to classifications- bihari, rikshawala, charsi (substance abuser), gappi (teller of fantastic tales) and so on. They are laawaaris (belong nowhere), akelapan (loneliness) is their only true friend, they will always be ajnabis (strangers) to many and even to themselves and yet, in a sense, they are the only ones who taste true azadi (freedom) as they have no maalik (owner), no family, no one to answer to at all; these are the four overriding emotions around which ‘A Free Man’ tells the stories of the people we don’t really know.

In the sense of really feeling what these people are all about, this book has opened my eyes and my heart. I know it will become an important reference point for the research I am about to begin.

Encounters with street children in Gurgaon- Mar 5, 2012

So this is how the conversation went between this little street girl outside a Gurgaon market and me.

Child: Didi, paise de do, pen khareed lo [Sister, give me money, buy these pens]

Me: Pen to bacche ye acchhe nahi hote, par batao paise ka kya karogi? [Child, these pens are useless; tell me what you will do with the money?]

Child, instantly: Pichkari loongi! [I will buy a water pistol]

Me, having just done the rounds in the market: Pichkari to bahut paise ki aati hai. Wo to jut nahi paaenge. Kahin aur kharch ho jaayenge, hai na? [The water pistol would be too expensive. You will have to save money for it and that will get spent elsewhere, no?]

Child: To phir kuchh khila do! [Then give me something to eat!]

She smiled her lovely smile as the wonderful aroma of frying eggs filled her nostrils; the boy with her simply looked dazed!

Eventually, Rahul walked across to the little streetside shop and bought her and her tinier companion bread and double egg omelettes. We were struck by their spontaneity, honesty and complete lack of self-consciousness. They knew the best chance they had was to ask for what they really wanted and hope we were in a benevolent mood! We were rewarded with lovely smiles at the end of this, but I cannot stop thinking about what their lives must be like. I have seen this same girl child the past few years, from when she was rather little to now, when she is much more grown up and very confident. Denied of any form of security, with no access to education or opportunity, these kids stare into a future that is bleak. Yet, because they are kids, they can smile, be witty and spontaneous; you may argue that these are only survival skills, but I find it hard to believe all of it is put on.

The recently releases ‘The state of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’ brought out by the United Nation’s Children’s Fund underlines the need to pay attention to children amongst the urban poor. What future are we talking about for our nation and our people if we let our children go hungry, get raped, remain illiterate and ensure their innocent smiling faces turn into those lined with bitterness, misery and hatred? I think this everyday and I wonder what more I can do to change things around me.

A few days ago, I watched this street kid painstakingly wash his muddy feet with less than a glass of water left in that plastic bottle. I have thought of that every time I ran the tap since! How little we value the resources we have!

 

Cannot wish the urban poor away; can we try new housing solutions like rental housing to accomodate them? Feb 20, 2012

Today’s newspaper carried two stories that highlight how completely clueless we (citizens, governments, bureaucrats and planners alike) are about how to address the issue of housing the poor.

The first piece of news narrates a conflict in the numbers of homeless people in Delhi. The government figure is 55,955 while NGOs in the sector claim 150,000! A 2008 survey by IGSSS, an NGO prominent in working for the homeless, put the figure at 88,410. Apparently the government survey was done in the wake of the Commonwealth Games, when many of the homeless were evicted from the city as part of a ‘cleanliness’ drive! This is a typical example of the kind of data scenario policy makers work with in India. Very often, there is little desire to arrive at authentic, realistic figures; consequently, policies that evolve are unrealistic and do not cater to the present, leave alone plan for the future.

The second story, set in Gurgaon, highlights another typical conflict. Sector 45 residents pressurize the urban development authority (HUDA in this case) to remove slum encroachments in the area, citing poor sanitation and law and order issues. The slum, which occupies government land (apparently disputed and hence not developed), gets water supply and electricity, but has poor sanitation facilities and many residents use open lands for defecation. Whereas private property owners are fully entitled to complain against slums if they see them as threats to their quality of life, clearly governments choose to wait for complaints and fail to check unplanned illegal settlements. Further, there is a spectacular failure to provide low income housing to an urban settlement that is growing as rapidly as Gurgaon is. Conflicts such as these will continue to escalate, while the government mouths buzwords like ‘affordable housing’ and ‘RAY’, which have failed to see the light of the day and provide housing in sufficient numbers to meet even a fraction of the demand.

Poverty in urban India isn’t something we can simply wish away, yet we continue to look for stop gap solutions and refuse to adopt inclusive planing in the present and for the future. I am aware that this is a common refrain and I have no innovative or practical solutions to offer. I do, however, see enterprising landlords in urban villages in Gurgaon creating several affordable housing formats for rent, from dormitories, to single room sets and tenement style housing, there is a range of options for employed migrants who can pay rentals ranging from Rs 500 – 5000 per month. That’s taking a definite step forward. It would be heartening to see the government step in to facilitate the creation of rental housing for the poor in the city, while they continue to evolve greenfield affordable housing projects as well!

Housing the homeless, and beyond- Jan 10, 2012

Almost as I was writing yesterday’s post about beggars, the Supreme Court was rapping state governments on their knuckles for neglecting the needs of the homeless (see news report). Every year when the cold wave strikes, the Supreme Court starts feeling terribly protective about the homeless people, orders reports on homeless shelters, orders governments to rebuild and repair these, etc.

What interested me though, is that this time, the Court specifically pointed out that the government was making no efforts to “encourage homeless persons to stay in shelter homes”, and also directed governments to “ensure that the night shelters were provided with basic facilities such as drinking water, heating, separate toilets for men and women, beds, and medical facilities.”

At micro Home Solutions (mHS), where I now work, we have been involved peripherally with night shelters as part of our larger work on low-income housing. A few years ago, mHS built two bamboo night shelters in Delhi with NGO partners, one of these is still standing on the banks of the Yamuna.

mHS' bamboo night shelter in Delhi; Image courtesy- mHS

Partly because of the court’s seasonal reaction, night shelters wax and wane in this city, increasing in number once the rap comes in wake of the cold wave! The biggest problem is offering a sustained shelter option, though, is that of maintenance. Once the cold season goes, they fall out of repair and the homeless go back to the streets….therefore, these homeless (beggars included) can never really be rehabilitated because they cannot afford to pay rents and there is simply nowhere else to go!

Legally, the poor cannot be charged for these night shelters. We fail to understand why they cannot be charged for services, though. Many of the homeless are daily wage workers, rickshaw pullers, rag pickers, etc who cannot afford to pay rents, but are also not exactly sans income. They would benefit from clean toilets, health facilities, lockers for their belongings, clean bedding, etc. The nutritional needs of the homeless are also critical. The shelters would very much benefit from soup kitchens, so the poor get a healthy square meal a day, saving them from starvation and death.  A holistic approach as opposed to simply putting a roof over the heads of the homeless is certainly warranted.

The other side of this picture is a concerted effort to address the supply of low-income housing, especially rental housing (and dormitories) that has recently re-entered the policy discussion after years of being shunned. Here too, how to and who would maintain and organize these is a barrier that needs to be addressed. If rental housing is created, at least the homeless with income would have an option for shelter. Of course, those without income would need a different approach entirely, something that incentivizes them to enter the workforce as well, and provides some opportunity to do so.

Essentially, it’s not just about solving the problem of housing the homeless. Its also about providing that opportunity to progress to the next level, and then beyond, and so on and so forth. That upward mobility that even the US has been criticized in a recent Time survey for not being able to adequately provide for marginalized populations. In offering a slim chance for upward mobility to these people, we would be building the future of the city and the nation in the best way possible, from the bottom up!

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