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Homelessness and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

Amidst the rise of COVID-19, India, with its large population, is struggling to accommodate the rising number of patients. While people of all backgrounds are equally susceptible to infection, economically backward sections struggle to find hospital beds with oxygen cylinders and necessities required to prevent coming in contact with the virus. Perhaps the hardest-hit part of the population is the homeless citizens of the country, a significant number given the size of the population.


Basic information about Homelessness in India

Given the significantly large population of India, even a small percentage of it being homeless indicates an alarming number of people living without shelter. Census 2011 indicates that the homeless population of the country consists of up to 1.7 million people while different independent sources estimate it to be around 2.3 million. A significant part of this estimate lives in the urban areas (around 9,38,000).

In legislative terms, certain laws consider homelessness illegal, therefore criminalising homeless people. Section 102 of the Delhi Police Act 1978 gives police the power to apprehend any person found under ‘suspicious circumstances between sunset and sunrise’. Since bathing and living in public areas is an offence, the police have the authority to detain and arrest the homeless, preventing them from having any form of shelter or hygiene and health maintenance.

The Indian Constitution considers homelessness a human rights violation. Article 21 guarantees the right to life and personal property without discrimination and recognises the right to claim shelter while Article 19 grants the freedom to migrate and reside in any part of the geographical territory in India. However,

"Conceptualisations of homelessness in India emphasise its character as a form of non-citizenship and systematic exclusion, while India’s policy responses to homelessness, however, or lack thereof, have led authors to suggest the state sees it as an ‘individual responsibility to be housed’, rather than recognising the state’s role in the distribution of housing opportunities." (Coleman. L. S.).

Regardless, the NDA government brought about several schemes to tackle homelessness, such as Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and National Urban Livelihoods Mission, but they lack proper planning to effectively implement the ideas and monitor the results despite their huge budgetary allocations.


Beginning of the pandemic

The rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus began in the second quarter of the year 2020 with the number quickly escalating from hundreds to thousands. Preventive measures to reduce the rate of infection recommended by the WHO included a three-fold strategy - namely social distancing, respiratory hygiene and hand hygiene. Implementation, however, was filled with challenges, especially due to the poor accommodative facilities available for over a million people.

"Following the complete lockdown in the country, the ‘stay at home’ directive becomes an oxymoron when it comes to the 1.77 million homeless Indians” (Goel & Chowdhary, 2017).

Further, cases of forced displacement of people in the name of maintaining the lockdown were recorded. There is also a considerable migrant population who are considered urban homeless people who earn daily wages. The lockdown rendered them jobless with no way to go back to their hometowns, rendering them stranded on the streets with no protection from the virus or financial means to buy protective gear. They have also been victims of housing, an attempt to ‘disinfect’ the homeless, a human rights and ethical violation at its best.

Exposure to extreme weather, lack of public hygiene, improper waste disposal, substance abuse etc. reduce the homeless individual’s ability to withstand the infection. The lack of immunity caused by their poor living conditions leaves them helpless against pathogens. The problem is worsened because the majority of this population constitutes senior citizens who are highly susceptible to the infection. Another problem found was the sheer lack of awareness about the protective measures individuals need to adhere to for safety. It is common for the homeless community to be excluded from the network of communication across the country leaving a majority of them ignorant about the virus. Further, their problems also do not get adequate media attention, leaving the rest of the country oblivious to their suffering. The consequence of them being neglected nationally reflects in healthcare policy making, where they are very frequently unaccounted for.


Current Scenario

The pandemic resulted in schools, hotels and other public buildings being used to provide beds for COVID-19 affected patients in the absence of adequate hospital beds. However, providing shelter for the homeless population was never considered a priority. The current scenario is worse. The second wave of the pandemic took us by surprise and thus, the government had proper resources to combat the infection. More and more people are being pushed into the streets with no access to personal hygiene.

Unfortunately, NGOs and other private and informal units have been found to be the only providers of medical assistance to the homeless community in India. Several areas now have non-profit organisations that work on fundraisers to acquire resources for the homeless. Organisations like Mutual Aid India and Team Avengers work to provide food, wellness kits and oxygen cylinders for the homeless. Food corporations like the Burger Company are providing homeless children with food called ‘Meals of Joy’ to help with the food shortage problem during the pandemic. In an interview with the Financial Express, Neelam Singh, founder of Burger Company India mentions,

“…. The Burger Company, India has taken an initiative to help and feed some of such kids for free. Doing this, we are able to feed 800-1000 children every day. ”

Looking forward

The nation is in a situation where the government is struggling to vaccinate the entire population while treating the already infected patients. Though accommodating the vast population of homeless citizens would be a demanding job, the country needs to be able to curb further spread of the virus and also make it easier to track the vaccination drive. Mathematical models jointly created by IIT Kanpur and the University of Michigan predict that the second wave has been predicted to subside in India by the end of July 2021. With this forecast in mind, the government needs to take the initiative of providing temporary shelter for the people stranded on the streets to avoid another wave of infections, at least until the economy improves enough to start functioning again with more daily wage jobs. This move would improve the efficiency of testing, vaccination and recovery of individuals, therefore quickening the eradication of the virus in the country.

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