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Posted at: Jan 7, 2018, 12:37 AM; last updated: Jan 7, 2018, 1:27 AM (IST)

Notes from city night shelters

Jaskaran Singh
Dec 31 was a pretty busy day for Chandigarh’s revelers. In contrast, it was like any other day or night for the city’s homeless. The Tribune’s Jaskaran Singh took a trip around the city and stayed at night shelters to feel the time-and-space difference

Jaskaran Singh

Shadows were beginning to emerge; tall city buildings seemed struggling to stay visible against the evening’s quiet descent. People were hurrying home or somewhere; cars, buses, trucks, motorbikes and cycles flitted about in a frenzied tumult of an approaching night. It was cold, very cold; its dullness blunted by shrillness of an exaggerated sense of living, and leaving a year behind — until one last ticking of time in the continuum of 2017. December 31 was to go anyway; the night had to be as dark as ever. Yet cities mark the absence of their sameness. 

I hung out, as if backstage, near brightly lit revelers’ haunts being filled to their capacity, all in apparent desperation to touch the farthest end of the year, holding on to whatever they could: their wallets their prime possession. Party lounges where they strutted and splurged weren’t their homes. The pride was theirs, and mine too. 

So, I allowed myself the luxury of measuring the brimful of the night. Dateline: December 31, 2017, time: 11pm, place: Chandigarh, Sector 7. A mouth-watering smell of food wafts across the shopping arcade. Food, all kinds of food, is there. Everybody is hungry, gluttonous and so full of noise that they don’t mind eating anything. They are smartly turned out in their wintry best, they are in a hurry not to let go of the moment at hand. Some of them are drinking in a corner, the thirst for a kick overcoming their togetherness. 

Here I find Kishori packing up for the night. Where would he go? “Wherever I find space to sleep,” he says without a hint of worry. I tag along, chatting up about his gruelling work of hauling goods to the big showrooms. We are going to Sector 12, PGI “because I have every chance of sleeping peacefully there.” I am amazed by his self-assurance. The PGI has three night shelters out of 11 in the city, he tells me. Would he mind if I go with him? “Not at all, but I am not sure if you would find a place to sleep there,” he says.

I ask the attendant to accommodate me for the night. “No, the place is full,” he tells me politely. Each water-proof shelter can accommodate 25 persons, at least. The number can go up to 40. Kishori looks tired, not dejected. We decide to take a chance at GMSH 16 shelter, but it is packed too, and the attendant is not even ready to listen. 

Over to Sector 9, I try my best to find space, but I’m refused again. The cold wind is piercing my bones, but Kishori is unfazed. Almost illiterate, he is from Saharanpur, western UP. He came to the city last year in search of work. “The city needs hardy people. So here I am ready to be hired,” he says, rubbing his palms and walking briskly. I realize he is wearing one pullover and a muffler. “Walking recharges the body.” I agree and offer him a ride on my cycle to Sector 19. The shelter attendant suggests we go towards Shiv Temple. No luck again. We head to the Sector 20 home near Hanuman Temple. It is 2 am and my mobile phone says the temperature is 8ºC. And yes, this time we make it! We have a place to sleep! I am overjoyed, but Kishori is unimpressed. 

Krishan, the attendant, helps us in setting the mattress and quilts and offers water from a container. I thank him for his kindness. There are 14 more people already sleeping inside the shelter. I lie down and close my eyes. I didn’t know when I fell asleep. The temple bell woke me up; the morning came so quickly! Yes, 2018 too has set in. It was 6 am, I looked around for Kishori. He wasn’t there; he must have already left for work. 

Only five persons remain inside the tent. I strike up a conversation. They are labourers staying in the shelter for the last fortnight or so. They are from distant places in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and even West Bengal. 

Rakesh Srivastava (31) is from Kolkata, he came to Chandigarh two months ago. A company based in Mohali had promised him a job. “I noticed something wrong there after working for the company for 15 days.” he says. So, he decided to leave.

“I have been staying in this shelter for 13 days. Every day I go out in search of a job. There has been none so far. I go to Sai Temple in Sector 29 for food from the community kitchen. I bathed after five days at Sector 21 gurdwara. I have fallen in love with the city, the people are very helpful and kind,” says Srivastava. “Though the night shelter stay comes for free, there is an urgent need for toilet facilities. Also, there is a lack of discipline,” says a migrant labourer.

Over the years, the number of homeless coming to the city has increased multifold. Nodal officer Kehar Singh from Department of Social Welfare says the government plans to set up more such homes. “A letter for approval for mobile toilets has been sent to the municipal corporation. We have written to the DC that Red Cross’s Annapurna van should also facilitate the needy with food at all the shelters for Rs 10 per plate once in a day,” says Kehar.

Twice a week, three 108 number emergency vans with inspection teams keep a vigil at these shelters and for medical check-ups. Another team headed by an SDM is supposed to visit each shelter daily to check facilities at these shelters, says Kehar.


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