New Delhi: Despite Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announcing that night shelters running in tents will be replaced with portacabins to shield the homeless from the intense cold, many of the homeless said they would prefer sleeping on the city’s roads than move in to unsafe night shelters.

“How can I take my young girls to a place where drunk people create a ruckus? It is not safe for me, so how can it ever be safe for my children,” asked Sunita while patting a brown-coloured mongrel stretched out on a straw mat beside her near the crowded Sarai Kale Khan inter-state bus terminal in southeast Delhi.

“Yes, it is very cold on the roads. But at least I know I will be safe here,” the 35-year-old rag picker told IANS.

Born and brought up in Delhi, Sunita, a mother of six children, has always called the city’s pavements her home and is currently living with a few scores of people under the flyover.

Like Sunita, many other homeless on Delhi’s road echoed similar sentiments.

“I have been living on the city’s roads ever since I was born. I once tried going to a shelter home but was beaten up along with my three-month old daughter. She finally died because of the cold on the road,” Rajan Basor, 35, said.

“The shelters are overflowing with people. They drink alcohol, take drugs and misbehave with outsiders,” the daily wage rickshaw-puller added.

“It is better to stay on the roads, with our families, than with people you don’t get along” he said.

Rukhsana, who was busy cleaning a mud-stove, said that shelter homes are dirty, gloomy and unsuitable for women to stay.

“It seems even the caretakers are a part of the gang. Inebriated men are playing cards and passing comments, making it an undesirable and unsafe place to stay,” she said while adjusting her mauve coloured shawl.

“Most of the times, they do not even let us enter. Why would we want to get into trouble at night,” she said.

Hope is at hand, with the National Human Rights Commission observing that “destitute persons are spending life in Delhi on footpaths and over-bridges in the cold and this “raises concerns as it may cause loss of lives”.

The NHRC Friday issued notice to the Delhi chief secretary calling for a report within four weeks.

“Reportedly, there are only 175 shelter homes in Delhi, which cater to around 7,000 homeless. These homes too are facing a scarcity of infrastructure and sanitation. According to the plan of the Delhi Development Authority, which is yet to be implemented, there must be a night shelter in every area with a one lakh population,” an NHRC statement said.

Many of the homeless agreed that if the government provides them proper facilities where they can sleep, keep their belongings safe and have proper sanitation facilities, they would shift in without a second thought.

“People at shelter homes steal our stuff. We hardly manage to earn. What use if even that little is taken away? We need proper places to stay and escape the cold,” Ganesh Basor, 50, told IANS.

He said there is no use complaining to the police as they refuse to help and chase them away.

Basor added that he was recently drugged and robbed of his belongings that included a mobile phone, Rs.1,200, a rickshaw and a gold bangle.

“I work hard from 6 a.m till 11 p.m. everyday. Imagine losing all the days earnings in just a flash. I have spent my childhood on the roads. But if I get a safe place to live now, I will definitely move in,” said Chumman Lal, 35, who works at a food cart.

Sanjay Gupta, director, Childhood Enhancement through Training and Action (CHETNA), a NGO that works for the empowerment of street and working children, said it is essential to understand the dynamics behind the homeless’ decision to not to go to a shelter.

“It is very difficult for a girl to sleep alone in a night shelter away from family and vice-versa, for a child who fears being bullied in the night shelter; or for a rag picker who isn’t allowed to sleep with his/her belongings,” said Gupta.

“This issue is not as simple as it may appear. The government has to understand the dynamics of homeless people, especially children, and act accordingly,” said Gupta.

Stressing on the importance of management strategy skills that involves shelter home authorities making the homeless feel safe and comfortable at shelter homes, Sanjay Kumar from Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan, an NGO that works towards empowering the homeless, said: “It is important to mobilise the homeless and make them feel secure.”

“They have to live with a feeling that the shelter is their home,” he said.

He added that the management should ensure there is no reservation of spaces inside shelters, proper area to keep their belongings is provided and there is no bullying around.

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