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Thin blankets & no masks — How Delhi night shelters are coping in a freezing Covid winter

Those in the shelters have to not only contend with one of the coldest winters in the national capital but also the Covid-19 pandemic.

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New Delhi: Delhi has been freezing this winter. The minimum temperature in the national capital Sunday morning (at 3.4 degrees Celsius) was lower than hill towns such as Shimla, Mussoorie and Nainital.

With the mercury dipping, those without homes in the national capital turn to night shelters to brave the cold. The night shelters, which fall under the jurisdiction of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), are funded by the Delhi government. As of 21 December, DUSIB has over 250 shelter homes that can accommodate nearly 8,000 people. The DUSIB delegates running of these shelters to agencies that it pays. 

ThePrint visited four such night shelters — at Delhi Gate, Sarai Kale Khan, Lodhi Road and Munirka — to view arrangements amid a drop in temperature and Covid pandemic.

Inside one of Delhi’s largest night shelters

The Sarai Kale Khan night shelter complex near the metro station has six rain baseras (shelters), two of them newly constructed. The complex houses nearly 500-550 people and is one of the largest night shelters in the city. Around the complex, most roam around without masks while cooking food on plates. The fire from the food provides warmth, as many here barely have one thin extra layer for protection.

Of the six night baseras here, four are family shelters, one is only for men and one is for recovered patients, which includes those coming out of serious injuries or drug addiction. 

Sujit (who goes by his first name only), the caretaker at the Sarai Kale Khan night shelter, told ThePrint that in the summer months, the complex doesn’t see more than 300 people. However, come winters, there are at least 500 people coming for shelter.

Due to Covid-19, rescuing people and bringing them to the night shelter has become more tricky. The shelter, run by Society For Promotion Of Youth & Masses (SPYM), now distributes masks and sanitisers to all those residing in the baseras

With the winter coming in the middle of the pandemic, those who walk into the shelter are tested. According to Sujit, those who walk in at night are thermally screened and then tested the next day. In order to ensure social distancing, the shelters are taking in people at half their capacity. “There has been no case of Covid here,” Sujit told ThePrint. 

Kuldeep Singh, 45, who segregates waste for a living moved into the Sarai Kale Khan family night shelter in November with his wife and nine children. “It was starting to get very cold and I don’t have a house so I came here,” he said. Before moving into the night shelter, Kuldeep lived in the jhuggis behind the metro station. 

“It’s a good thing that the government has provided these facilities; it is much less cold here compared to outside,” Kuldeep said. 

Satinder, a safai karmachari (sanitation worker) in the city, has been living in the Sarai Kale Khan night shelter for the past four years. He complains that due to the increased number of people in the baseras, using the toilets has become a problem. “The drainage pipes are getting blocked and one does not get enough time in the bathroom,” Satinder said. 

Those in the family rain baseras lay on foam mattresses many of which have holes in them and thin blankets. Each shelter has a television which many sit in front of to take their minds off the biting cold.

At the men-only night shelter in Munirka, which is run by SPYM | Photo: Revathi Krishnan | ThePrint
At the men-only night shelter in Munirka, which is run by SPYM | Photo: Revathi Krishnan | ThePrint

Payments due, lack of space 

Dr. Indu Prakash Singh, a member of the Supreme Court-appointed shelter monitoring committee in Delhi, told ThePrint that the winter rescue plan began from 15 November onwards. 

“The main issue that I raised was that payment to shelter management agencies (such as SPYM) had still not been given,” Singh said. “And DUSIB has not given a date by which they will pay these agencies, so we need to pin them down. Due to Covid, government revenue has fallen. However since June no dues have been given for shelter management.”

This year, due to Covid, these night shelters were also providing food twice a day, Prakash said. Speaking about the roadmap for shelters in the winter months, Prakash said all the rain baseras had been stocked with woollens and blankets but added that donations were still welcome.

Yet non-payment is not the only issue in these night shelters. 

Sunil Aledia, the executive director of Centre for Holistic Development, a 10-year old organisation that works for the rights of homeless persons explained that during the rescue mission, no Covid testing takes place. “No one has thought what will happen if someone in these shelter homes has Covid,” Almeida said.  

Aledia further said that last winter, there was a requirement to house 11,000 people in night shelters and that DUSIB has said that it has space for only 7,000 people. So automatically 4,000 people have nowhere to go,” Aledia said. “The two main focus areas should be permanent structures for these night shelters and not temporary cabins or tents. And secondly, there should be inter department convergence to coordinate the running of night shelters better.”

Also read: Delhi govt didn’t take timely preventive measures to contain Covid cases, Centre tells SC

Challenges of Covid and a freezing winter

Anil Verma, SPYM field director and incharge of the night shelter at Delhi Gate, explained that due to the Covid-19 lockdown, many who would usually flock to the rain baseras in the winters had gone home to their villages, as they had no jobs or rations at the peak of the lockdown. This was also confirmed by Anjula Khatoon and Mohammad Saddam, the incharges of the night shelter in Munirka. 

In the Lodhi Road night shelter, many complained of insufficient warm bedding. Ajay Kumar, a daily wage labourer who came to Delhi from Sitapur (in UP) after Diwali, said that warmer clothes and thicker blankets were required. “And if possible some fire or heaters to keep us warm. It is getting very cold now and seems like this year all records of cold temperatures will be broken,” he said. 

Bitoli Devi, 70, who also lives in the shelter, said, “The bedding is full of holes. Look at this mattress. This is what I need to sleep on. Sometimes I sleep with my sari on top of me as the razais are not thick enough.” 

Echoing Bitoli’s woes, 35-year-old Gita Devi also said, “We need more blankets. I am feeling much colder this year than last year.”

Aside from the cold, Ajay is also worried about Covid. “Covid is not going anywhere anytime soon and we need to be more careful and wear our masks and regularly sanitise our hands,” he said.

Yet he seems to be only among the few concerned about the pandemic. 

70-year old Jagat Tiwari at the Delhi Gate night shelter said, “Covid is a ploy of the government. It’s a rich person’s disease that is spread by them.”

It is a sentiment widely shared at the Sarai Kale Khan shelter as well, where barely anyone wore a mask and many claimed that it “does not infect poor people”. 

This year more challenging: DUSIB

Bipin Rai, member expert (non-official) of DUSIB, told ThePrint that every year there is a separate plan for the winter as it is very severe. Rai, however, said this year has been challenging not only due to the pandemic but also colder than usual winter.

He said that in terms of Covid, DUSIB was trying to ensure social distancing at the night shelters and other Covid norms. “They were already serving lunch and dinner at the rain baseras and would soon be serving breakfast as well,” he said, adding that a doctor visited each rain basera in Delhi at least twice a week. 

He further said that those who see homeless people on the streets can click a photograph and share it with the DUSIB control room and action would be taken. “We are trying our best to save the homeless people of Delhi,” he said. 

On charges of non-payment of dues, Rai explained that there was a fund crisis in every government and not just in Delhi. He added that the main delay was due to discrepancies in submitting bills by the shelter management agencies.

“From our side, (we are) not delaying payments. We are trying to fasten the process,” Rai said. 

He further said that, at present, the occupancies in the night shelters was close to 7000-8000 and they had 40,000 mattresses and blankets. “However if there is a need, we will purchase more,” he said. “We are also open to anyone going to these night shelters and telling us what we can improve.”

Also read: Delhi passes resolution demanding repeal of farm laws, CM Kejriwal tears up copy of laws


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