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Homeless At Home: How Women Embrace Homelessness In Search Of A Safe House

While the number of homeless women in Delhi is in the thousands, there are just 19-night shelters for women in Delhi and the majority of the existing centers fail to provide more than the bare minimum. 

Women at a government-run night shelter for homeless women in Lodhi Road, in Delhi
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Every year as Delhi's dreadful winter smog begins to smother the city, Sunita, a married woman, with two kids, who lives in Yamuna Khadar, grabs her little rucksack and heads to a government-run women's shelter in Kalkaji. As a metaphor for a secure home, Sunita refers to the "rain basera" as her "maika" (parent's home), where she goes to flee the violence she must put up with at her husband's household.

Unlike many other women in the rain basera, Sunita isn't  “homeless”. Her home just doesn't feel like one. To these women, home and homelessness exist beyond the apparent dichotomy of safe and unsafe. The so-called, safe space, that is home, is not as safe as the uncharacteristically safe space “women-only shelter home.” 

Sunita claims that her home is no less than a “prison” and that she feels more at home at the homeless shelter. “My husband isn’t right. He gets drunk and beats me,” she says. “So I come here for a few days to spend time with other women and just relax.” If the husband tries to come here, she adds that the caretakers handle it.

In contrast to Sunita’s “voluntary” homelessness, the other women at the shelter she refers to as friends are not homeless by choice, but out of compulsion. 

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Rajasmanti and Sunita (left, sitting) with two other women inside the all-women rain basera at Kalkaji | Credit: Outlook Photos/Rakhi Bose

Rajasmanti, a homeless divorcee and diabetes patient, who has been living in the rain basera for nearly three years, says that despite having two brothers and a sister living in Delhi, she has no home. “My husband used to beat me and then ask my brothers for money for my treatment. Even after I had a liver surgery, he would continue to assault and harass me for money,” she said. 

“After my parents' death, my brothers refused to accommodate me and my husband left me,” she says. In 2018, the 45-year-old was turned out on the streets and lived on footpaths for months, surviving on alms, before a women’s rights organisation rescued her and set her up at the night shelter. She is currently fighting a case for compensation against her husband.

Despite the contrast in their lives, both Sunita and Rajasmanti find an ally in each other. They consider themselves homeless, and call the night shelter their “home”. 

In winter, they can be found sitting around the fire that is lit every evening within the walled courtyard of the rain basera, a bunch of “ekal” (single) women, together in their solitude. “I don’t wish to leave. These women here know me. They are like family, we take care of each other,” she adds.

‘Unaccommodated women’

Sunita and Rajasmanti are among the thousands of “homeless” women in Delhi. But, they are happy with where they are. For many women living on the streets or in shelter homes, the issue is not homelessness, but that of being “unaccommodated” (women who do not or cannot accommodate themselves to the social convention) or feeling “homeless at home”. 

In her 1998 paper, The Unaccommodated Woman: Home, Homelessness and Identity, sociologist and author Julia Wardhaugh writes, “It is the social world that does not or cannot bring itself to accommodate its outcast women. Thus, unaccommodated women – the homeless, single mothers, battered and abused women, women working the streets – have not accepted, or sometimes have been refused, their place in the world.” 

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Wardhaugh believes the idea of “home” is often represented as a series of binary opposites: a place that is safe as opposed to the dangerous outside world, a place that is private as opposed to the public sphere, and a place where one can rest and retire. But such a “happy phenomenology of the home” as sociologist David Sibley put it, may not always work for women for whom the home may be the site of oppression, physical danger, and subjugation. For instance, a woman who faces violence or subjugation at home may find herself more “at home” on the streets. They don’t feel home at their so-called conventional home same as Sunita and Rajasmanti. 

Spatial security, gender violence, and homelessness 

Homelessness puts both men and women open to physical and spatial vulnerability. There is the inevitable threat of sexual violence and loss of belongings while living on the streets. Homeless women also face harassment from goons, the general public, and the police.

This was quite conspicuous in the porta cabin in Sant Nagar which could accommodate 25 families and was situated beside two more tents for single men. The structures were propped up by the side of a busy road and a park that at night doubles up as a refuge for homeless addicts. 

Pushpa Devi, the caretaker at the shelter home at Sant Nagar for married couples, agreed that safety was a big issue in mixed-population shelters. “The men tend to drink and create a commotion. They harass other women and young girls, and then there are fights between the men. Sometimes, they even try to come on to women who are in the staff. At night, the scene can get very rowdy,” Push Devi says, adding that on many occasions, the police need to be called in to handle the situation. 

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Every shelter for women has three women caretakers and three guards who work eight-hour shifts with one reliever. Pushpa Devi, however, says that it’s just her and another woman who alternate shifts at the shelter.

In 2019, a report titled Understanding Homelessness in Delhi was released by the Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS) which highlighted that 85 percent of homeless women that were surveyed reported fear of sexual harassment. Over 70 percent of respondents also said that they would not help a victim of harassment even if it happened before their eyes. 

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Homeless women set out for daily wage work on a cold winter morning in Delhi | Credit: Outlook Photos/Suresh K Pandey

Meena, a migrant worker from Rajasthan who lives with her three children on a footpath near Nehru Place said that sexual harassment and violence were a common reality for the homeless. However, she and many other homeless women prefer to live on the streets than at the homeless shelter. “It is better to be on the streets where we have the freedom to be however we like. Inside, there is always a lot of “Jhagda” and “jhamela”, she states. She also states that in shelter homes where there are mixed male-female populations, women are constantly harassed by drunk men and authorities can barely control it. 

While the police might provide protection to the shelters, homeless women themselves report harassment from the police. Anita Singh, a ragpicker living near the New Friends Colony community centre market states that she is often troubled by beat cops at night who demand “hafta” to allow her and others to sleep on the market premises. “They don’t let us use the public park to sleep either. The homeless shelters in this area do not have any space,” she adds. “I don’t know how many shelters there are,” she adds. 

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Homes for the homeless

Despite all that ill with the existing system, shelter homes are an important part of a state’s response not just against homelessness among women but also gender-based violence and community building and behaviour change communication. Activists working with rain baseras, staff, and inmates, however, claim that despite efforts by the Delhi government, the city still does not have adequate infrastructure to house or rehabilitate homeless women. 

Every year, thousands of women seek shelter at the rain baseras for the homeless that are run by the Delhi government in collaboration with Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) and several NGOs and rights organisations that carry out the executive and tertiary work required for the upkeep of about 195 rain baseras. Together, the shelters that include buildings, porta cabins, and tents, can provide shelter to up to 15,000 people. Some additional temporary night shelters are also propped up during the winter months. Only 19 of the permanent shelters, however, are for women, of which two centres are dedicated to just pregnant women. There are 19 more shelters for married women, meaning these shelters cater to both men and women. 

The number is very low, compared to the need. Though there is no exact known number of how many homeless people including women are currently living in Delhi, conservative estimates by activists put the number at anywhere between 25,000-30,000.

Activists raise several questions about the low number of shelter homes, the privacy of inmates, and security. “First, there aren’t enough night shelters. Second, there is zero attention given to the security and privacy of women in these shelters. In the shelters with mixed male-female populations, the bathrooms are often unusable, there is no special zones for breastfeeding or hanging of personal clothing items for women and the incidence of sexual harassment is quite high” Ashok Pandey, a land rights activist working on issues of housing for the homeless for over two decades with Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) tells Outlook. 

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Pandey believes that in many of the shelter homes that exist for women, there is barely any mechanism to protect the inmates neither is there a redressal mechanism to identify incidents or security lapses within the shelter itself. Pandey alleges that many shelters like the one in Sant Nagar, that accommodate women don’t even have proper boundary walls and miscreants often jump inside the premises at night.  

In 2016, Delhi Commission for Women chief Swati Maliwal sent notices to DUSIB and other responsible authorities following the reports of an alleged rape of a minor around the premises of a government-run shelter home. Many questions were raised on security lapses within the shelter. The DCW has not responded to Outlook’s queries regarding the case. However, sources working with the government for the maintenance of shelter homes claim that many times, minor cases are trumped up to defame certain persons or organisations. 

Shared spaces and struggles

When homeless survivors of sexual violence approach shelters, caretakers first carry out police verification before admitting them. “Sexual violence is a police matter and we want to avoid any risks,” Pushpa Devi states. She, however, adds that verification is not always easy. “Police often refuse to lodge cases of sexual violence by homeless women. It becomes very difficult to prove sexual violence and most cases that occur in the shelters or on the streets are sorted mutually, meaning the victims end up getting no justice and perpetrators go scott free,” she tells Outlook. 

In terms of security, it once again becomes essential to understand the gendered experience of spatial safety among men and women and the difference in bodily reactions. Studies show that bodies react in two ways when faced with the vulnerability of homelessness: expansion and retraction. While homeless men tend to “expand” their presence on the streets by forming communities or joining "gangs", and putting on bravado or getting into physical brawls and public drinking, women tend to physically shrink themselves and mix into the shadows. Such physical reactions are also evident even among women who feel “homeless at home”. For instance, women living with abuse at home tend to become anorexic - an attempt to physically reduce their visible presence by way of a defence mechanism to reduce vulnerability.

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Improper utilisation of space at a shelter home for families in Sant Nagar | Credit: Outlook Photos/Rakhi Bose

In the homeless shelters for women, however, there is a sense of solidarity and shared struggle. Unlike the shelters for men and mixed male-female populations, the all-women centres look cleaner and appear quiet in the evenings. Without the clamour of abusive, drunk men impinging on their space within the compounds of the shelter walls, the “unaccommodated women” seem to have found a sort of sanctuary in the homeless shelter. But they know this is temporary. The night shelters are a temporary response and not really the homes of the women living in them. At some point, they know they will have to look for more permanent housing. 

“The rain basera provides food two times a day and breakfast. The food isn’t great but at least we have a roof over our heads,” said 56-year-old Anjum, who lives at a women’s shelter in Lodhi Road, states. Abandoned by her children, and once forced to beg, Anjum now lives at the rain basera. She fears, that she won’t be able to survive on the streets. “At my age, I can’t find any work. I will not be able to survive these heat waves and cold waves,” she states as she pulls her blanket closer. The dank porta cabin smells of unwashed linen and crowding. But Anjum falls asleep in no time. For now, she feels at home in her homelessness. 

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