I wanted to know what happens to the destitute in the rainy season. Where do they go? What do they do? So, I ventured out to find night shelters in Chennai.

Being new to the city, I had no idea where I could find them, so I randomly started asking people.

After two weeks of searching desperately, I finally located a night shelter in Kannapar Thidal in Periamet.

The stretch between Nehru stadium and Kannapar Thidal was full of homeless people sprawled on the pavement.

That was proof enough that people didn’t know about anything called a night shelter.

As far as I knew, this night shelter was owned by the Chennai Corporation. So I went to the Coporation to ask about it.

They sent an old man to show it to me. Unfortunately, he took me to a metro rail office.

I had almost given up hope when I spotted a few boys playing with a tyre. I went up to them and asked in my broken Tamil and sign language, “Where do you live?”

The boys smiled and asked me to follow them. After almost running after them for five minutes, I entered a dilapidated, three-storied building. It was the night shelter!

I discovered that it was about 15 years old and nearly 100 families from the streets near Ripon Building and Periamet had been living there without basic amenities.

A resident, T. Selvam said, “We were shifted here in 2002 by the Corporation. But we still do not have toilet and electricity facilities.”

Another resident, Lakshmi, 70, complained of lack of privacy as four families were forced to live in a 7 ft by 14 ft room.

“We can't even think about personal hygiene. The foul smell from the public toilet nauseates us,” she said.

According to a Supreme Court order, all shelters are required to function 24 hours a day.

“But most shelters in Chennai are open only at night. Of the six functioning shelters, only the facility for families in Kannapar Thidal and Santhome work round the clock,” said Peter.

Officials at the Corporation said there were 15 such facilities in the city, including in Kodungaiyur, New Washermenpet , Tondiarpet, Rajaji Salai, Chintadripet, Sembium, Choolai, Teynampet, Mandaveli, Chinmaya Nagar and Saidapet.

They plan to open eight more, and involve NGOs in running some of them. They estimate that only some 550 of the city's 11,116 homeless use these shelters.

According to a study done by the Indian Community Welfare Organization, a non-profit group, Tamil Nadu has the highest number of urban homeless in the country, and Chennai accounts for 75 per cent of these.

The field work and research made me wonder what was more painful: living in a night shelter or out on the streets of the sprawling metropolis?

(Sriranjani is a student at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.)

(This article was published on December 9, 2012)
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