A ragpicker in Shahdara, Delhi. (Photo: Adi Prakash/The Quint)
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Delhi Unroofed: The Quint’s Special Report on World Homeless Day

One man thinks his missing father might be homeless and starts an NGO. The stories of the people he meets show what we don’t know about the homeless in our capital city.

It was not until he considered the possibility that his father might be homeless, that Irtiza Quraishi began paying attention to the homeless of his city. On 8 April 2005, Yusuf Quraishi, Irtiza’s father had walked out of their cramped home in the Jama Masjid area of Old Delhi and disappeared into the crowd for good. Irtiza was 19.

“Suddenly from getting pocket money, I started paying bills,” Irtiza says.

As his mother spent hours gazing out of the kitchen window in the hope that her husband will walk up the gully, the struggle to stay afloat took most of Irtiza’s day. A job at a call centre in Gurgaon meant the teenager was working 13 hour shifts, even as his mind was preoccupied with the stress of what might have happened to his father.

“There is a possibility that your father might be homeless, a relative told me,” says Irtiza. “What if he fell on his head somewhere, lost his memory and just could not remember the way home?”

On the long taxi drives from work in Gurgaon to Old Delhi where he lived, this unlikely, Bollywood-esque possibility resonated with him and Irtiza began noticing the homeless.

“They were under flyovers, on the footpaths, on the dividers,” he recounts.

Delhi’s homeless sleep on dividers. The breeze from passing cars helps against mosquitoes and the heat. (Photo: Adi Prakash/ The Quint)
Delhi’s homeless sleep on dividers. The breeze from passing cars helps against mosquitoes and the heat. (Photo: Adi Prakash/ The Quint)

It is difficult to miss the homeless in the national capital. A UNDP survey in 2010 counted nearly 56,000 homeless persons in Delhi, while the 2011 census put the number at 46,724. Experts believe that number is much higher.

“For every one person categorised as homeless in these surveys, two get left out,” says Sunil Kumar Aledia, Executive Director of the Center for Holistic Development, an NGO working on issues of the homeless.

There could be as many as 1,50,000 homeless persons in Delhi, though the exact number is unknown as there has been no comprehensive counting of homeless persons in the city. Small survey teams and sporadic, short-term surveys have meant that many homeless persons have escaped documentation.

Irtiza agrees. Now 30, he lives with his wife, mother and three-year-old daughter. The air conditioner that he bought from his earnings from his call centre job is now in disuse because he cannot afford the electricity to run it. The money that he saves goes to an NGO he started in January this year – MARHAM or the Muslim Association for the Rehabilitation of the Homeless and the Mistreated.

Formerly homeless boys take English grammar lessons from Irtiza Quraishi at the Marham Hostel (Photo: Adi Prakash/The Quint)
Formerly homeless boys take English grammar lessons from Irtiza Quraishi at the Marham Hostel (Photo: Adi Prakash/The Quint)

At first glance, the Marham hostel is another cramped, crowded boys hostel in the country. An unassuming second-floor apartment at the end of Chawri Bazaar’s Jagat Cinema Lane, it’s ten residents jostle for space in its two bedrooms and hall.

“He doesn’t know what he is talking about,” says 20-year-old Rajat pointing at his housemate Santosh, “I’ll tell you all you want to know about homelessness.”

Proximity provides ample opportunity for disagreement and on this day the matter on hand is the consistency of Santosh’s cooking. Santosh is the de facto chef but today he has has served up some bhindi aloo (okra and potatoes) in which the okra has all but dissolved into a mucosal liquid.

“I can’t cook!” Santosh exclaims amid jeers from his housemates.

When Santosh was a 15 year-old boy wandering on the streets of Delhi, where he moved from a village in Bihar’s Madhubani district, he would many a times look for work where there was a working kitchen. Standing in Shahdara’s labour chowk, he would wait for contractors for daily wage work. It was a hit or a miss.

Catering for a marriage party or washing dishes at a hotel meant cooked food. If he didn’t get those jobs however, he would improvise.

“Three raw eggs in the morning and in Rs 6 you are done eating for the day!” Santosh says and the others nod in agreement.

Finding work only became a necessity when the money ran out. Santosh was lying on the platform of New Delhi railway station, starving for the last 72 hours when a man approached him.

“He made me an offer of Rs 6000 for a month of work at his farm, a six-hour drive into UP. It was good money, back then and now,” he says.

Fifteen days later he would be back in the city, his thumb swollen and black bruise marks all over his body. He had quit.

Arvind struggles with de-addiction and claustrophobia at Marham. Marham has no de-addiction program for its residents. (Photo: Adi Prakash/The Quint)
Arvind struggles with de-addiction and claustrophobia at Marham. Marham has no de-addiction program for its residents. (Photo: Adi Prakash/The Quint)

When Arvind came to the Marham hostel, Santosh made him a glass of Rooh Afza. When he needed a new T-shirt to replace his lice ridden clothes, Santosh gave him his own.

“I came to Gurgaon from Chandigarh in October 2014 and worked at a resto-bar for a few months,” Arvind says. “Then I fought with the owner.”

All the boys are migrants to Delhi and most have left home after feuds. They seldom talk to each other about why they left. Irtiza prefers a don’t ask don’t tell policy.

“I never ask anyone about their past. It doesn’t matter to me if you were a criminal. It’s all about moving forward here. It also keeps the peace and saves on judgment,” he explains.

“I couldn’t face my parents after I failed the 10th standard,” Santosh tells me. “They had high hopes from me. I was a good student but slowly drifted away from studies in my teenage years.”

Arvind used to work as a contractual labourer for the Public Works Department and sleep at Geeta Ghat night shelter. He lived on the streets until October 2015, when he started sleeping in the Geeta Ghat night shelter in Kashmere Gate. A massive tin shed, the shelter is one of the recent additions to a total of 198 night shelters in Delhi. Designed to accommodate 500 people, it is one of the larger shelters in the city, which has a total capacity to serve about 20,000 homeless persons, less than half the census number.

Satyaveer Yadav, a shift in-charge at the shelter recommended Arvind to Irtiza as a suitable addition to Marham. But the other boys in the Marham hostel didn’t think so from the start.

“The people who live here have a certain tenacity to beat their addictions and better themselves, Arvind just doesn’t have that,” says Amar, a recovered alcoholic who has been living at Marham since April.

Irtiza spends Rs. 40,000 on Marham monthly including a rent of Rs.15,000 for the hostel, an amount he sources from donations mostly from friends and extended family. Marham does not have a de-addiction programme and nights at the hostel mean hours of wakefulness for the new members battling addictions.

“I don’t have the expertise or the resources to deal with severe addicts,” Irtiza says, “So I ask Satyaveer ji to recommend boys who don’t have severe addiction issues. I always check hands for needle marks before taking anybody in.”

Only nineteen hours into Marham and Irtiza’s rule of thumb seems to not have worked. Arvind is restless. He is finding it difficult to focus, the pupils of his eyes vanish every few seconds, his speech is unclear and his fists are clenched as he tries to tell me how he is feeling.

“I eat gutkha but haven’t for a day. I don’t know what to do, I feel like I haven’t eaten anything, haven’t drunk anything. My mouth is dry.”

In April 2014, a public hearing or jan sunvai organized by the Center for Holistic Development outside the Connaught Place police station saw complaints by the homeless persons of police violence. The government, in their defence filed an affidavit in the Delhi high court stating that they had to resort to violence because the homeless were intoxicated and refused to heed the instructions of the police, when they came for their rounds.

The Delhi high court ordered that a survey be done immediately of the various de-addiction facilities in the city. The results were shocking. Only two out of 32 de-addiction facilities were active in 2014. That number has risen to 15, counting exclusive centres open only to beggars, women and children in 2016. The number of open-to-all centres is eight.

Arvind doesn’t open up about the scope of his addiction or talk about his manifest symptoms of withdrawal, but many of the other boys of Marham have their guesses about him from experience.

Satyaveer Yadav, supervisor at the Geeta Ghat night shelter checks to see if one of the residents has a fever. (Photo: Adi Prakash/The Quint)
Satyaveer Yadav, supervisor at the Geeta Ghat night shelter checks to see if one of the residents has a fever. (Photo: Adi Prakash/The Quint)

It was 2003 and Satyaveer stood in a wedding in Geeta Colony with a trumpet in his hands. The Rs 200 payment would buy him food and alcohol for the next few days but only if he followed instructions. These were simple. Keep your lips pressed to the tip of the pipe and press the buttons with a look of dedication but do not in any circumstances blow into the instrument. He was one of about 10 other stand-ins that wedding brass bands have in their ranks to make the band seem bigger and by extension demand more money from their contractors.

In Aijhi village in Uttar Pradesh’s Fatehpur district, Satyaveer had made a jingle for his one-eyed class teacher, whose good eye also happened to be cross-eyed.

“We would call him kanua (one-eyed cross eye) and recite the ka kha ga as k se kanua, kha se khaat raha, ga se gazipur mein…”

(k for one eyed, kha for kept eating ga for in gazipur)

The humour was short-lived and a thrashing from the teacher in question at school prompted Satyaveer to corner him by the village canal, beat him black and blue and dunk him in the water for good measure. He felt he just couldn’t go home after that.

Satyaveer had been living in Delhi for a month and would do so for another two, before sending a letter home apologising and going back. He would soon return to Delhi, get a job with the NGO Aman Biradari and eventually become a shift supervisor at the homeless night shelter at Geeta Ghat.

It is 20 July 2016, when I suggest, sitting in the patch lawn outside Geeta Ghat with Satyaveer that we should do a longer interview the next day, he apologises and tells me it just won’t be possible and will have to be later.

“I am buying a house tomorrow,” he says with a glint in his eye.

The next day, Satyaveer is at the tehsil office in Ghaziabad to buy his first house. The place is in Loni, near the Delhi border.

“I just cannot afford a house in Delhi,” he says with some resignation. “I am paying Rs 7,000 per gaz there and a comparable house in Delhi would cost Rs 15,000 per gaz.”

Hardev Nagar and Sant Nagar in Burari were some of many localities where Satyaveer’s budget of Rs 5,80,000 got him a no for a small one-room house with a bath and kitchen.

Finally, he settled for a house for Rs 7,15,000, exhausting his pool of savings and borrowing money from friends like Irtiza, who loaned him Rs 40,000.

“We never blamed Delhi, when house after house was too expensive for us to buy. We just came back with the realisation that maybe we are not worthy of owning a place in this city yet,” he concludes.

The inside of Geeta Ghat night shelter. Lice-ridden blankets, mosquitoes and heat are the enemies of sleep here. (Photo: Adi Prakash/The Quint)
The inside of Geeta Ghat night shelter. Lice-ridden blankets, mosquitoes and heat are the enemies of sleep here. (Photo: Adi Prakash/The Quint)

Arvind left unannounced from Marham on the 11th of July, a week after he was brought there. He said he had a stomach ache and wanted to buy medicines with the money Irtiza had given him for Eid.

“Once he got the money, it was only a matter of time that he would leave,” says Rajat. Amar agrees and recounts how he saw Arvind leave every night after everyone was asleep.

“He needed his fix, whatever that might be: tobacco, marijuana or something else…” he says.

Arvind has not been seen even in the Geeta Ghat night shelter for the last three months. But this time Irtiza is not looking for answers.

“It’s his choice,” he shrugs. “The day after he left we followed our routine. We ate at the right time and I taught the boys English lessons as I do.”

In the last nine months Irtiza Quraishi, through Marham, has given 10 boys a roof and through Aadhaar cards and admissions in open school, an opportunity for a life off the street.

“Maybe he will never come back. I don’t really have any hope left about that. But if he’s out there and homeless, maybe if I help these people, someone, somewhere might help my father.”

The documentary 'Condemned to be Freewas screened at the India Islamic Cultural Centre. After watching the film, Manish Sisodia, Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, tweeted, “I would appeal to all to watch this documentary on the homeless”.