Conventional wisdom among middle and upper class circles will have us believe that people live on the streets because they are too damn lazy to work. That is why they beg, form cartels of beggars who maim for sympathy, use drugs or are alcoholic, and are generally bad souls who deserve what they get. Look at all those people given multi-storeyed housing in Dharavi or Kathputli Colony or wherever. All they do is sell or rent the place and go and live on the streets anyway. So, why should anyone help them?
Speaking to those who refuse to live in their newly constructed ‘boxes’, in Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Delhi, reveals certain basic flaws in policy and architecture and a lack of empathy for people expected to shift there. The head of a protest group from Kathputli Colony, a settlement of artists, performers and craftspeople from Rajasthan, told me in despair, “We are acrobats. The poles we use for tightrope walking or the makeshift stage used by puppeteers is impossible to carry up the narrow steps of the new houses. And, there is no open space to practise. The rooms are so tiny and the passages so narrow that we can take nothing up or down. Where do we store the implements with which we earn our living?”
Recently, at a Rockefeller residency in Italy, I met Betsey Martens, president emeritus, National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, from Boulder, Colorado. She was a woman of great compassion and recognised the need to build healthy communities. She has spent all her adult life trying to find kind and productive solutions for the homeless in the US. There is great distaste and distrust for the homeless there, too, she told me, and a constant factor in building or renting homes for them is the Nimby factor―no one wants them in their midst. Most often they are alcoholic, drug dependent or mentally ill, and no one wants “that sort” around their own homes or children. As per traditional policy, the US government offers them rehabilitation and housing only once they are clean, and till they stay clean; this doesn’t usually work, as people who have long histories of addiction usually relapse into them. They remain dependent on the government and continue to be homeless.
So, what if the process was reversed? What if the homeless were first offered nice subsidised rented apartments and were also offered social workers who would guide and look after them, offer them medical and psychological facilities, and later, skill training to get them on their feet?
Well, the “what if….” worked and has become a successful model in many states, including Utah. But many problems remain. The government is cutting back on funds.
Land is becoming dearer, and affordable space is available further and further from where rehabilitated people can find work. Betsey is now engaged in researching policy suggestions for public housing based on models in the US, Canada, the Netherlands and the UK. She is also involved in finding solutions in South Africa, with the additional charge of empowering young girls in these new communities.
In a country like ours, where huge slum populations need to be rehoused, where soulless and crumbling “new” government housing uses up scarce resources without helping the situation, we perhaps need to engage more with varied success models and cull from them all, both the failures and the successes.