A harrowing tale from last year was my attempt to find shelter for a homeless, mentally ill man, Kumaresan, during the height of the pandemic. My many attempts finally secured a place for him at a shelter run by the NGO, The Banyan. Kumaresan’s story had a fruitful outcome, or so I thought, until recently.
After a few weeks had passed, some of my friends told me that Kumaresan had returned to Perambur and he could be seen on the streets again. As I had not personally come across him, I did not believe them and continued with my routine.
But after a few days, as I was driving through Venkatraman Canal Street I spotted Kumaresan. Though he was wearing very dirty clothes he looked much better than the last time I had seen him. I stopped my vehicle and asked him whether he had been discharged after treatment and asked how he had managed to return to Perambur. He said that the officials at the Kovalam Shelter had paid him Rs 600 and had asked him to go back.
I was unsure if this was the right move, given his condition. So I checked with the NGO. The rescue team had changed and a new person was now heading the operations. Since the latter had taken over responsibility recently, he was not aware of the developments and promised to check with the Kovalam Shelter and get back to me. After a couple of hours, he called me to inform that Kumaresan who was in quarantine at the Kovalam Shelter from the 1st of September until the 14th of September 2020 had behaved very violently during his stay.
As Kumaresan used to smoke cigarettes and consume alcohol doled out to him by anti-social elements when he lived on the streets, it could be that his behaviour was due to withdrawal symptoms during this time. I was informed that after the quarantine period was over, Kumaresan had escaped while he was being shifted to The Banyan’s Shelter for men in KK Nagar. I explained to the staff member at the NGO that as per police records, Kumaresan was still under their care and therefore it would only be appropriate to complete the required documentation about his whereabouts. He volunteered to get Kumaresan rescued once again and wanted me to let him know if I got to see Kumaresan again.
Back on the streets
A few days later, I met Kumaresan near my house. I asked him if he was willing to go back if I arranged to get him rescued once again. He was reluctant and said he was feeling better and he would be able to take care of himself. I spoke to the local police officials and they also confirmed that Kumaresan’s overall condition and behaviour had improved after his stay at the shelter and he was harmless, and asked me to let him be.
When I first him, Kumaresan would be frequently seen in residential areas, but after the unlock phase, he was not to be seen in our neighbourhoods. We had seen him near the Ayanavaram Bus Terminus, Railway Colony or in commercial areas.
Ever since the second wave took hold and the lockdown was announced, Kumaresan has been seen moving around Venkatraman Street, Saraswathi Square and Vasan Street. We get to see him sleeping on the road, foot paths, auto rickshaws & tricycles parked in the neighborhood during the night and early in the morning. We were concerned for his wellbeing, about how he would sustain himself and also for the safety of the residents.
A few days ago a resident in our neighborhood passed away due to COVID-19. After his body was taken away for cremation, the family had disposed of the beds, bed spreads, pillows, oxygen masks and other disposable items used by the individual below the transformer in Venkatraman Canal Street.
To our dismay, we observed one day that Kumaresan has picked up these bedspreads and used them in the night. Very early in the morning the next day, the milk vendor who services our neighbourhood saw him going around with the bed spreads and requested him to throw it away. His reaction I am told was aggressive and he would have turned violent but for the timely intervention of someone who was passing by.
No place for the homeless
It has been nearly a year since I first started lodging complaints with the Greater Chennai Corporation, Greater Chennai City Police, Institute of Mental Health and the NGOs to find a shelter for Kumaresan. I managed to get him a shelter on the 1st of September 2020 and he seems to have been back on the streets in 15 days and has been so ever since.
This incident merely highlights the plight of the homeless under successive governments. The homeless as well as citizens with mental illness do not have a ration card, Aadhaar card, the right to vote and are therefore conveniently and blatantly disregarded by the local administration and the political parties.
When daylight wanes in the evening and through the night, a single light from a streetlight 20 metres away becomes the only source of light for many of these street dwellers. A torn blanket, dirty and tattered clothes are the only belongings they can call their own. They are deprived of the very basic requirements and rights — to food, shelter, drinking water, toilet facilities. If they are lucky, they survive in an abandoned building on some forgotten streets in our wealthy and posh cities. The problems they face on a daily basis are the stuff of the worst nightmares for many of us.
As a citizen activist I have done whatever it takes to help find a shelter for two individuals. I hang my head in shame when I see one of them back on the streets after a brief vacation at a shelter for 15 days. Given the situation with Kumaresan, I am not sure if the other individual too remains at the shelter or is back on the unforgiving streets in these unsafe times.
Waste disposal hazard
On that note, I would also like to dwell on another issue from this incident, which is a matter of grave concern for all. We get to see many residents within our neighborhood in Perambur trashing hazardous disposables and waste on the street corners, near the transformers, electricity pillars etc. Despite taking up this issue through our civic engagement forums, the problems persist.
The local conservancy workers also do not use any masks, gloves or protective gear when they come to clear the garbage or sweep the roads. The worker servicing our neighbourhood cleared the bed spreads and other items disposed of after the death of the COVID patient, but the bedding and pillows were very heavy and could not be loaded on to the cart without help.
On seeing this, I lodged a complaint with the local conservancy inspector, who sent another conservancy worker to my house with an electric vehicle.
As we all are aware, we sometimes dole out a tip to the conservancy workers to clear our household waste. The worker had supposedly approached the family who had dumped the beds near the transformer and asked them for a tip. The family members responded saying that the beds have been trashed in the garbage dump and it’s the responsibility of the Greater Chennai Corporation to clear the same. Since the worker had no one to help him, he also left the place without clearing the hazardous waste.
Concerned for the well-being of residents of the neighbourhood and that of Kumaresan, I lodged another complaint with the Zonal Officer and the Greater Chennai Corporation through their Whatsapp number. This move worked like a miracle and within moments I could hear the Conservancy Inspector calling on me at the door. The beds were finally cleared with the help of two workers and a cart.
However, we continue in our endeavour to find a place for Kumaresan.
Unless we try to address such issues as a community, I do not think such problems can be solved effectively. The government too must come out with a policy on how they plan to protect the homeless people across our country.