Oct 2, 2013

Under the stars with the homeless and the pseudo-homeless

Photo courtesy: Fountain_Head
I stayed at the Chennai Light house MRTS railway station last night with a bunch of about 50 volunteers who chose to participate in the India - Under the stars event and about the same number of truly homeless people, for whom it is the regular bunking place. I chose to join this event, majorly driven by a curiosity to understand what it feels like to be homeless and to witness in person a few interesting stories. The experience gave me several interesting insights. Hence, I share.

There were people from two NGOs prominently visible in the crowd - The Banyan and Nalandaway - the former in an organizing role and the latter as part of the volunteer troupe. The event started at the Open shelter for Homeless men at Dooming Kuppam near Santhome Church, run together by the Govt. of Tamil Nadu and The Banyan. We assembled there in the night for dinner at the soup kitchen and we were served the same food that is served to the inmates of the shelter. For those who think we did a great reach-out deed by eating this food, I must say that the food was so good and perhaps even better than what I eat some nights in my bachelor home. God bless the kitchen for this service!

People initially grouped in bunches of friends and acquaintances and once the ice was broken gradually, new circles of people emerged and each one of them had a unique and interesting past and present. We proceeded to the Light House MRTS station after a quick briefing by the Joy of Giving week volunteers and Banyan workers on the scope and objective of the event. One point was reiterated many times. It is impossible to understand the plight of the homeless by staying one night like them. But the event was a mission to simulate an experience as close as it gets to that and thereby sensitize people to spot these invisible people on the streets later on. 

There was an interesting policeman on guard for us. He vouched for our safety and well-being the whole night and also indulged at several attempts to entertain us with his songs and local stories. Obviously he was high - on enthusiasm too! 

Two challenges were posed in front of us - 1. The mobile challenge and 2. the Mosquito challenge. For a 'single' bachelor who sleeps everyday at home amidst at least around 10 different mosquito species without air-conditioning, both challenges were not challenging enough. In fact, to my surprise, the mosquito threat was far fewer at the station than my home. And as a matter of no surprise, I did not get any important missed call alert message when I switched my phone on the next morning. The conditions did not seem too deterring for me. So I shifted my focus to the people. 

Strangely, for all that the event promised, there were no homeless people around us initially. There were only us - the pseudo-homeless who can go back to homes the next morning. As I was wondering, one old man dressed in khavi dhoti walked past us complaining to the police man that these educated cracks have come to occupy even this place that they had to sleep. Then it dawned on me. We might have chased the homeless away unintentionally. They are the invisible people and there was too much spotlight and chatter amidst us. Nature came to our rescue soon. It rained!

Slowly scores of people from close-by areas who sleep in the open swarmed the station for a roof and they dutifully found a silent and dark corner, spread their sheets of paper and curled up to sleep - as invisible as possible. I tried to do two things in the night.

1. Get acquainted with the pseudo-homeless: there were so many interesting people from different walks of life and I could not resist the temptation of listening to their fascinating stories. Stories of fleeing from school hostels in 9th standard; of cycling to work for about 20 kms daily at 40; of an elderly couple dedicating their life to serve the mentally challenged; of the empowered young women choosing alternate careers in social service; of an engineer-MBA working in a research library; of several past rescues and reunions that Banyan has effected; and of several layers of serious rational God research from a man clad in jeans and t-shirt. I consciously refrained from talking much and instead focused on listening. It was worth it. Yet it was a limited time to meet all and know all. But if I continue to be in touch with a fraction of these people, I will be happy.  

Photo courtesy : vishwaant
2. Observe the real homeless: I sneaked out moments of solitude very often and walked around the place observing the 'truly' homeless. I chose to do this alone skipping the company and discussions of friends and it was worth it too. Surprisingly, not all people who sleep in the open are homeless. Some of them truly have nowhere else to stay. They are pushed out of their homes long ago or they ran out of their homes long ago. Some of them are part of large families which live in very tiny pigeon-holes. They take turns to sleep in the open so that their family members have some room to stretch their arms and legs at home in sleep. Some are 
just content and happy to catch up with their social friends at nights. I spotted a  few families staying in the open. The boundaries of privacy for the man and the woman are limited to the bed-sheet that they share. 

There was another group of pseudo-homeless people in the mix. These were inmates of the shelter where we had dinner. They too had volunteered to stay with us for the night. To them, it was a little revisit to the past. Some of them have spent all their nights at the same place not so long ago. I engaged in a long and interesting conversation with one of those gentlemen. He went to the shelter nine months ago and before that he was one of the 'homeless'. He narrated tales of life in the shelter and the care and support they get from the administrators of the shelter. While I asked him if all the inmates liked each other's company at the shelter, he said there is an invisible sense of mutual respect but no real friendships. If a man does not wish to talk about his past, no body asks him. If a man does not wish to talk to anyone in the present, no body forces him. There was a self-made bro-code among them. Most of them resign to an unending silence and spend their time in the shelter doing simple chores. Then I asked him if there are people who flee/ walk out from the shelters voluntarily back to the homeless life. He said yes!

The shelter reiterates strictly on quitting alcohol and smoking. Those who can not quit or control this urge opt to roam the streets and share the bed with the stray dogs rather than a life with dignity and care. Those who do agree to these terms seem to find some meaning in their life back. They look upon their caretakers like a primary school student would see his teacher. They do sneak out for a beedi now and then but when they are caught by the teacher, they pose with the shy smile and say 'Sorry Miss'. This respect must have definitely come from the true intentions of care that they feel being showered on them. 

I had a lot of other thoughts running in my mind. I slept very late and observed people in the wee hours inn their sleep. The pseudo-homeless obviously had a lot of difficulty finding sleep initially. Mosquitoes and sweat are different. But sleeping in the open with dogs and strangers roaming around definitely seemed to play on their minds. A sense of insecurity was prevalent until the sheer force of sleep took over. But beyond a point, when they finally slept, nobody seemed to bother. They curled up, rolled on the floor, snored ad smiled in their sleep just like they would in their bedrooms. Which is when I wondered what is the purpose of a 'home' in brick and concrete. Except for the toilet and the bed room, or more directly, except for shit and sex, all other stuff that make up a 'home' seemed only a luxury to me for a fleeting while. A step further, if it is the people that form the 'home', it raised further questions. Will a 'family' living in the streets feel 'homeless'? I strolled around a wider radius from the station in the night and when I had to piss, I did so at some dark corner. Quite instantly, I wondered what a woman would do. Theft, violence, sexual harassment etc. were kept at bay with a police watch for us. I wondered if that is applicable round the year. Answers aside, many such questions popped up in my mind and I am still contemplating. There was only one thing that I could say for sure. Whatever be the purpose, people need a closed space to call it theirs. Because mankind is very vulnerable and very unpredictable if it is dark around. 

We had a debriefing in the morning where the pseudo-homeless shared their experiences and pledges to contribute in some manner to this cause. There were useful directions from The Banyan on how we can play a part in identifying people who need help, informing the right people and rescuing the needy for rehabilitation. The group also pledged to meet again sooner for a discussion. 

And then it slowly dawned!

- Cheers,

By the by, this event was covered by The Hindu and The Indian Express too. 


  1. Dear GS,

    Your reflections reflected the true experience of everyone including me who was part of the event. Let us work together for the Right to Home for everyone