I had been noticing a man, about 40 years of age and evidently suffering mental health issues, around my neighbourhood on Venkatraman Street in Perambur over the past few months. In May 2020 when the Covid-19 cases started spiking I approached the local administration to seek help in securing a shelter for him.
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The initial response from the officials in the enforcement agencies and local administration was that it would be impossible to accommodate any person with a mental illness at the mental hospital or any home for the mentally challenged during the pandemic. They asked me to wait until the pandemic eases to find the individual a shelter.
Meanwhile I attempted to find out more about the individual by engaging with him. I noticed that on the few occasions I got to speak to him, he communicated effectively. He was cautious about consuming any food provided to him.
Residents in the neighborhood gave him used clothing, food and also allowed him to watch television through the window during the night. Residents from one of the apartments in the neighborhood were saying he had entered their compound and was found sleeping on the floor.
It pained me that the compassion we extend to animals and birds when they are in pain was not accorded to a human being who is mentally ill. He deserved to be treated with some level of dignity.
Many attempts to find a shelter
I did not want to give up on the issue of finding shelter easily. I reached out to Banyan, the NGO known to shelter destitutes for guidance. I was informed that they only help women destitutes and suggested that I approach Good Life Centre for the homeless.
When I reached out to Mr Bhaskar from Good Life Centre for the Homeless, he said it was not possible for them to admit any new inmates due to the pandemic and suggested that I contact Anbagam which is a government-run shelter for the homeless.
The call to Anbagam was attended by one Mohammad Rafi, who was friendly but said he was in a helpless situation because of the Covid-19 guidelines put in place by the administration.
Anbagam I am told was already hosting over 130 inmates against the original capacity and budget for 60 inmates. He wanted me to escalate the matter to the office of the Collector of Chennai and the Chief Minister’s Special Cell.
Accordingly, I filed a couple of petitions through email and simultaneously kept following up on the matter with local officials from the enforcement agencies.
But despite these efforts, I could not secure shelter for the individual in our neighbourhood.
NGOs in a spot
I wrote an e-mail to Udavum Karangal, an NGO well-known for the work they have been doing in sheltering homeless, orphans, destitutes and the mentally ill. Mallikarjunan, the care taker, called me to discuss the issue. He was apologetic but said that it would be difficult for private shelter homes to accommodate individuals during the Covid-19 pandemic.
He suggested that I escalate the matter to the offices of the Health Secretary and the Chief Minister.
Court order unheeded
On August 4 2020, the Madras High Court issued an order advising the government to secure mentally distrubed persons on the streets of Tamilnadu in a shelter for the mentally challenged.
When I spoke to Mallikarjunan, he had mentioned that subsequent to the High Court order, the Chief Minister had allotted a few ambulances exclusively to ferry the mentally challenged persons on the streets to the mental hospitals and shelter homes.
On seeing this order, I once again contacted the local law enforcement agency officials and sought their help. The same beat patrol officers who had originally attended my call visited our location and this time around, he said that the extent of mental imbalance of the individual was minimal, and it would be difficult to accommodate him at a mental hospital or shelter home.
When I was not satisfied with the response and asked about further steps to be taken, the officer asked me to escalate the matter to the police control room and the office of the health secretary.
I escalated the matter through e-mail to the offices of the Chief Minister, Commissioner of Tamil Nadu, Greater Chennai Corporation and also raised the issue through the social media – Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter.
Not wanting to give up on the issue, I sent a Whatsapp Complaint to the Greater Chennai Police on the night of August 10 2020. Within 15 minutes, I received a call from the control room and was promised help. The local police station was informed and a visit by the beat patrol was arranged.
A different officer arrived this time but informed me that they were unable to locate the individual. They declined my offer to find the individual as it was late at night and left after promising to follow up with the health department to arrange for the ambulance.
I noticed the same individual in the neighbourhood a few days later. In conversation I asked him if he was willing to go to some shelter home if I chose to help him and he responded that he was willing to do so. I learnt that he was from Ariyalur.
When I reached out to the officer who had come by on the 10th, he said that they had still been unable to locate the individual. I told them about my interaction with him and sent the officer some photographs that I had taken of the man earlier that afternoon. The officer agreed to send the beat patrol.
A patrol vehicle arrived in the next ten minutes but the officers once again left after promising to secure shelter in the coming days. After a while I received another call from the K1 Police Station. The official wanted me to brief him on the issue and promised to do whatever he could to help.
Passing the buck
Two days after this incident, there had still been no help forthcoming despite my many complaints and escalations. On August 16 2020, when I stepped out of the house I noticed the beat patrol vehicle passing through our lane. The mentally challenged person was lying on the road, but no action was taken.
When I sent a complaint over this inaction, the patrol vehicle returned to our location with a different officer on duty this time. On arrival, I showed him copies of the newspaper articles, the complaints lodged through the TN Police Grievance Portal and also the signed petitions which were originally sent to the various officials in the administration by e-mail.
The officer said that this was not sufficient and I would have to meet the local police inspector personally and file a written petition in order for them to take some corrective action.
When I told him that several petitions had already been filed and the matter has also been escalated to the office of the Chief Minister, he agreed to help us out, but on condition that one of us should accompany them to the mental hospital for admitting the individual. He also also wanted us to take responsibility for the person.
When I agreed to this, to my surprise, I was told that the patrol vehicle could not be used for this purpose and that I would have to transport the individual using my personal vehicle or use some alternative mode of transport. I then alerted them to the the news that the Government of Tamil Nadu had allocated a few ambulances for this purpose, which could perhaps be summoned.
The rude and callous response by the officer showed his reluctance to take any responsibility. The officer then proceeded to chase away the mentally- challenged individual from the spot and waited for a few moments before driving away.
Given the laid back attitude of the local officials, I chose to send another Whatsapp Message to the control room and updated them of whatever had happened. The officer on duty promised to call the local inspector and inform him. I suggested that the issue deserves to be escalated to the offices of the Assistant Commissioner or the Commissioner because we had seen no change in the situation over the last several months.
The control room official promised to escalate the matter, however it’s very unfortunate that nothing has been done to secure a shelter for the person even now.
This story is about only one mentally ill person that I got to interact with personally. There are hundreds or thousands of such helpless individuals on our streets with no one to care for them and abandoned by the state.
Naturally, I find myself with these questions that need to be answered by the city and state:
Is it such a Herculean task for those in the administration to find a decent shelter home for a mentally ill person in a metro city like Chennai, especially when we are in the midst of a global pandemic?
Why are the mental hospitals run by the government choosing to abandon individuals on the streets when they have the mandate and the required infrastructure and capacity to accommodate and rehabilitate such citizens?
While there are organisations such as Banyan who are ready to help women, there seems to be no social organisation or a government agency which is ready to help the poor with mental health issues in our city; why?
Is this not the right time to look beyond our families and do something for the society?
As the saying goes, “Only the babies who cry will receive milk,” or “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
Let’s make some noise and help escalate such matters of public interest to a point where they will be effectively addressed.