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'We don't know what will happen tomorrow': Life under lockdown in a New Delhi homeless shelter

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 29 April 2020 15:29 GMT

A homeless boy feeds his sister inside a sports complex turned into a shelter, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India, April 4, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

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"No doctor has come to the shelter. If someone falls sick here, it would be very hard"

This article is part of a series examining how coronavirus lockdowns are affecting  vulnerable people around the world. 

NEW DELHI, April 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Even before India's tough coronavirus lockdown began, Priya Kale and her family were scraping by in a cockroach-infested shelter for the homeless in New Delhi.

Now, her husband has lost his cleaning job in an office and Kale can't go out to look for odd jobs, leaving the couple and their five children dependent on meagre handouts of rice, lentils and flour.

India has about 1.7 million homeless people, according to census data, though civil society groups say the real number could be closer to three million.

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Every day, thousands of people arrive in the capital from the countryside in search of work and a better life. But an acute shortage of affordable rental housing means many end up in slums or sleeping rough.

Less than 10% of Delhi's estimated 200,000 homeless people find accommodation in a shelter like the one that Kale's family shares with nearly a hundred other families in northeast Delhi.

Kale, 32, said cramped conditions at the shelter make social distancing virtually impossible. But with the country's coronavirus lockdown extended until at least May 3, her most immediate worry is getting enough food.

This is her story:

"I've lived in the shelter for about 10-12 years. I lived on the pavement near the railway station before, and then I got married. My husband and I had hoped to rent a room, but we couldn't afford the rent, so we came to the shelter.

In this shelter, there are nearly 100 families. There are no separate rooms, everyone has some space which they hang a curtain over for some privacy. There aren't enough beds, so some people sleep on the floor, like we do.

We keep our belongings in a trunk and boxes. It's not very clean here - there are lots of mosquitoes and cockroaches, but it's better than being on the pavement in the sun and the rain.

My husband works as a cleaner in an office building. But since the lockdown began, the offices are closed. He's tried looking for other jobs, but when he goes out, the police tell him he cannot be outside, and he has to come back.

Without the money that he used to make, it's very difficult. We don't get food in the shelter. The Delhi government has given each family some flour, rice, cooking oil, salt and lentils. There's no gas for cooking, so the children go out to look for firewood. The police are not as strict with the children, but they cannot be out for long.

We eat rice and daal (lentils) or roti (bread) and daal with some salt and green chilli. We don't get vegetables or milk, and we don't have money to buy anything extra. We were getting cooked food for a while, but that has stopped, and we have to manage with the rations we were given.

The children go to school, but that is shut now, and they just sit inside all day. It's hard to keep them occupied. There are other children in the shelter, so they play together sometimes. But there's not much they can do.

We've heard about the coronavirus, and we get text messages from the government telling us to stay inside, wash our hands, and wear a mask if we go out. We were each given a mask, but there's not enough soap to wash our hands so many times.

No doctor has come to the shelter. If someone falls sick here, it would be very hard, because it's a small place, and there's not enough room to keep apart from people.

We've heard that homeless people have been rounded up by the police from the streets and taken to camps. Some were beaten, some couldn't take their belongings.

A lot of the homeless people are migrants from other states. We heard that some of them have gone back to their villages, even though there are no trains or buses to take them.

We don't know what will happen tomorrow or next week or next month. We don't know when we can go to work, when the children can go to school. If we get rations, we can eat. Otherwise we might run out of food."

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