Experiencing Disaster, the Homeless Way

Streets are full of stories; stories about people and stories that people tell, to their children, giving them hope, hiding the odds and preparing for the rigours of life. For the first time, stories don’t work.

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While disasters create havoc for everyone in general, there are certain groups and communities that are more affected than others. Elderly, Dalits, de-notified tribes, transgenders, destitute people, persons interfaced with criminal justice system, slum dwellers, unorganised sector workers, women…the list is very long and goes on to reinforce the discriminatory societal structure that exists in non-disaster times as well but may not stand out as distinctively as it does during the crisis or times of disasters like the present situation of COVID-19.

Urban poor, especially the homeless, is one such population that experiences disaster situation in much more devastating form. Homeless are probably the most visible, yet the most invisible inhabitants in our urban spaces. They are seen everywhere, but are rarely noticed. Let us first understand who these people are, how and why do they remain invisible and how do they manage to survive on hostile streets.

Many of us may not be able to recall seeing a homeless person even once, but the fact is we meet them every day; they are all around us. Unfortunately, we have a peculiar picture of a homeless that’s engraved in our minds and nobody else gets registered as a homeless. Sometimes s/he comes in the form of vegetables and fruits seller, he is a mechanic or a plumber or an electrician, somewhere s/he is laying the roads or filling the potholes for our smooth rides, somewhere else s/he is cleaning the drains for filth-free cities. It is the homeless again who cleans the garbage and litter, also the head-loader stuffing the essentials on to cargo for timely availability for us, it is him only who drives us around and also the one who fetches milk in the morning. S/he is baking our breads, manning our residences, and also watering our parks and gardens. It’s the homeless who lives an uprooted life, to make our city lives affordable. It’s this homeless who remains invisible for most of us, unless s/he reaches a state of absolute destitution or becomes ‘lunatic’ and ‘gardelu’ in popular language.

While they are seen everywhere, their existence is rarely acknowledged. Being pushed out of rural economy, entire lives they seek an entry into urban economy but here too, they are denied a formal access. No wonder India has huge informal sector. This refusal and invisibility lead to denial of citizenship status and rights that come along with citizenship. This is where the hostility of city and vulnerability of poor homeless start experiencing each other.

Also Read : Relief and Livelihood with Dignity: Priorities for Delhi’s CityMakers

Access to services, whatever they manage, is dependent on their ability to negotiate. This negotiation is central to the survival for homeless. Better one learns to negotiate, easier is the survival. The negotiation space can be divided into state and non-state actors. While police and municipal authorities, including civic services, form the state group, livelihood spaces and general public constitute non-state actors.

A homeless person negotiates with these state and non-state actors every single day and how efficiently s/he does this determines the extent of citizenship s/he gets to experience.

Having lived a few weeks as a homeless myself, I know how each day and night homeless survives is the result of his/her ability to negotiate.

Everything, however, changes in a disaster situation. This space for negotiation that sees them through, is eliminated, putting the survival itself at risk. Negotiation is replaced with submission. For the population whose existence itself is denied and entry into functional structures of the society is restricted, submission means complete loss of dignity and misery. With guards dropping with the negotiation getting eliminated, all that remains is the wait for complete elimination.

Life on streets is undoubtedly very harsh and disturbing. However, there are certain aspects that enable a person to survive and also do enough to build and support his life. Let us see how each of those enabling aspects is impacted to uproot the uprooted life of a homeless.

One disturbing trait of the disaster is how it changes the nature of support that person receives. State’s protection is replaced by individual’s charity. Helplessness is not an unknown emotion for the homeless, courtesy the abusive streets. It is rather an integral part of their existence. However, during disasters, this feeling of helplessness reaches an altogether different level. Every day survived, every meal eaten, every dose of medicine received, every inch of shelter comes as a result of someone’s charity, clearly denting the pride and dignity of the person. We must remember, for large number of homeless people, reason for their homelessness is their need for dignity. These are the people who refused to make a compromise like what most would do and ended up on hostile streets in unfamiliar cities and towns.

We all witnessed how during the current COVID-19 crisis, individual charity went up and lot of people came out to help the vulnerable and needy. Structured response too came in the form of civil society organisations but government measures were actually very limited and delayed. While this collective response from members of society or CSOs is definitely a positive factor, for a homeless this often results in additional piercing into his/ her dignity. Let’s understand why.

When relief is provided by the state, it is received as protective assistance from the state; it is viewed as the responsibility of the state towards the person as a citizen. There is rarely a feeling of inferiority or dependence that comes in. This can be understood as a feeling on getting a scholarship by a student. However, when the relief is the result of individual charity, there is something deep that it does to the ‘dignity loving’ soul of the person. Circumstances do not allow the person to refuse the help, but that only deepens the feeling of helplessness further.

Also Read : Despondency Amidst COVID-19: Concerns of Returnee Migrant Workers

If we study the design of relief interventions, we will see that most require a person to ‘seek help’. The hard-working homeless who chose ‘difficult survival’ over ‘compromised comforts’, finds it difficult to fit in this design of relief interventions. Do I need to mention the never-ending photo shows being put up by relief-providers showing people receiving help? So, the person who earned his living respectfully and remained an anonymous face in the city, suddenly becomes starkly visible, crying out for help. This is where dignity gets attacked further.

With need for large scale relief operations, another evil effect of disaster seeps in: normalisation of humiliation. In the event of distributing relief, all thoughts for individual’s ability to decide for self are buried deep and ‘the giver’ starts making all decisions for the person, including ‘what’ would one eat or ‘what’ are essential needs. What is being given is not on the basis of the needs but whatever the giver feels deemed. Similarly, who gets help and who is refused is decided on the discretion of the ‘given’ and not the need. It means nothing if a person stood in queue for several hours when he is refused a packet of food, because ‘giver’ packs up for the day.

Even the best advocates of human rights do not complain when anxious queue of hungry persons is given a big push, felling down many, as it is easily defensible by rhetoric of ‘crowd management’. This normalisation of humiliation has severe long-lasting impact on the psyche of the person. There is natural disturbance and anger that begins to grow within. Of course, these are insignificant people and how they feel doesn’t matter much and therefore, we never have any conversations around such incidents.

Another very crucial and disturbing trait of disaster situation for homeless is rights getting surrendered as a citizen. It is not that under normal times, there are many rights that homeless enjoy but still, there are certain services or amenities that remain available to every person and then there are rights, at least conceptually. However, during disaster, there is complete chaos and citizens are often compelled to surrender most of their rights, at least in practical sense of the term. Here again, homeless are affected more than others. For them, this surrender is often very violent and brutal. None would have missed numerous videos/ news reports coming from all over the country with walking workers being beaten up mercilessly or tortured and humiliated with cruel punishments.

There is this heightened fear of uncertainty that adds to the vulnerability of the person and once this fear takes over, one stops questioning any wrong doing fearing action against self. With beatings and assaults becoming the norm and acceptable practice in the society, there is very little that a homeless citizen can do to protect self. One is defeated in the mind. With chaos all around, homeless citizen is reduced to this insignificant unit whose existence makes no difference to the world. While life anyways is unfair when you are on a street, discrimination goes up manifolds during a disaster situation. Crisis can bring out worst from us and often it’s the poor and homeless who pays!

The ugliest and most devastating trait of disaster in the context of homelessness is around person’s emotional strength. Homeless, who battles barriers all his life, finds self in a situation where suddenly personal world is severely threatened.

All this while he faced abuse, deprivation, hunger and so on, but did enough to maintain his pride as a family. Unfortunately, it is this pride that gets shattered during times like current crisis.

Disaster situation brings out the deepest vulnerabilities of the person at one end and fiercest or ugliest face of the state and society. Suddenly a parent, especially father who is seen as protector of the family becomes this person who has nothing in control. Child sees his/her parents being pushed around for a small bowl of grains or beaten up mercilessly for no fault of theirs. Worst is they do not react or retaliate. Children must be getting puzzled to see their parents coming home with bags of ration (received as relief material) but not a piece of toffee for them. How many of us even consciously realise that homeless or poor worker does not buy ration in bulk? S/he buys it in portions at the end of the day. Whether person tells the children or not, no matter how hard s/he tries to conceal this extreme situation from children, but children would know.

This experience of acute helplessness where one is not able to even feed his family leaves deep scars on the psyche of the person. There is this heightened sense of embarrassment, guilt and regret that overpowers all other emotions. Streets are full of stories; stories about people and stories that people tell, to their children, giving them hope, hiding the odds and preparing for the rigours of life. For the first time, stories don’t work.

The humiliation person goes through becomes so evident; helplessness is brought to the surface to the levels where any amount of story telling fails to mend the dent. A person who fights the world unshakingly and stays optimist, finally loses the battle. Disaster situation passes, crisis gets over, life is back to normal at some point but lives altered for homeless, are never the same. The hurt, helplessness and humiliation experienced during the calamity haunts the person for the years to come. We, the society, can make it least painful and bearable, if we come out of our unconscious world and show compassion that would alter the memories created. We cannot prevent the pandemic, but can definitely change how a poor person faces the crisis. S/he would still remember battling a situation, but instead of hurt and humiliation, s/he would remember the love s/he received. Shame of helplessness would be replaced with the pride of empathy s/he would experience. Pride and dignity intact, s/he would be back, doing what s/he does best—weaving the dreams, building the nation!