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Government help is inadequate as homeless problems grow

In Kerala, many are yearning for a place to call home

Government help is inadequate as homeless problems grow
A woman sleeps in the street in Thiruvananthapuram reporter, Thiruvananthapuram

February 7, 2013

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"I’ve nowhere to go. So I sleep here,” says Ayyappan Murugan as he spreads a sheet on a sidewalk in Thiruvananthapuram, capital of Kerala state.

Murugan, 64, says he has been living on the streets for more than a decade. Besides no permanent address, he also has no voter’s card nor any documents proving his identity or citizenship.

“I've nothing other than some clothes and a sack. I do cleaning jobs in a nearby shops and roadside restaurants to make a living. During the rainy season I sleep under bridges,” Murugan says lighting a beedi, a local cigarette.

“I’m not alone here. Just walk around the city and you can see hundreds sleeping on pavements, shop verandas and at bus shelters.”

The number of destitute people sleeping on the streets is "increasing and the government unfortunately does not have effective programs to help them," said K.M. Abraham, who heads the state government’s Social Welfare Department.

The state government spends around one billion rupees (US$20 million) each year on social security schemes. But people like Murugan, who have no documents, are not listed as beneficiaries and do not gain anything.

The elderly are the worst affected because of inadequate government funds and policies, said Praveen Pai, a doctor who specializes in geriatric care. He said he has seen people dumping their elderly parents "like a bag of rubbish" on the sides of roads. Many have psychological problems.

"Our streets are crowded with abandoned elderly people. Most of them had everything – family, kids and a nice home. It’s a major social problem in Kerala now,” Pai said.

Some people, like Santhosh Joseph, are trying to help the destitute. Joseph took home a mentally ill person wandering the streets 15 years ago. "Now I take care of 300 people," he told

He said what he finds most frustrating is the government rules and regulations that NGO-run shelters and homes must follow.

"I can be prosecuted for not giving a coat, two pairs of bedsheets and pillow covers to each person. By God’s grace they have not done it yet,” Joseph said.

Even faith-based groups are forced to close down houses because of these rules.

One example is that of Juliet Joseph, a former nun who ran Kafarnam, a charity home in the suburbs of Kochi. She set up the home in 2002 but has had to close it after a court filed a case against her following media reports her home was flouting rules, including hygiene specifications.

According to a 2011 Kerala government regulation, charity homes for the disabled should have ramps, disabled-friendly toilets and rooms. Juliet agreed her home did not have these facilities.

However, it housed 244 destitute people, 108 women and 116 boys, some of them physically handicapped and mentally sick. The court transferred them to government shelters and other government-recognized homes.

"Mine was also a government recognized home. I was spending 13,000 rupees (US$ 2,500) a day feeding them without any outside help," the former nun said, adding she took better care of the homeless than the government does.

Kerala state's mental health authority specifies that a house caring for mentally ill people should have one bathroom and one toilet each for every eight male patients, and for every six female patients. A house taking care of 10 mentally sick people should have a 56 sq.m. dormitory and a 28 sq.m. living room.

“Even government shelters do not have these facilities. In fact, the government itself is the biggest violator of its own rules,” said Jolly Thomas, a charity worker based in Thiruvananthapuram.

She said a revival of the Catholic Charismatic movement in the 1990s in Kerala led to charity homes in the state mushrooming. "Some are doing some good, but some are profiting out of charity. The state should have a way of helping people doing good work,” she said.

However, until the government finds ways to do this and improve its own social policies, Murugan and many others will remain sleeping on sidewalks. 

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