The phenomenon of homelessness is one of the worst forms of urban
poverty and social vulnerability, and a glaring indicator of the failure of
governance and the state’s commitment to a welfare state. It is tragic and
unacceptable in a civilised society and independent India that a large
percentage of our poor are homeless. No one wants to be homeless by
choice – it is a situation people are forced into – like endemic poverty.
Women constitute one of the groups worst affected by homelessness.
While the phenomenon of homelessness violates the most basic of
human rights for all populations, women without housing and living
on the streets suffer the most severe kinds of abuse and violence. State
response to the needs of homeless women is grossly inadequate and the
majority of homeless women are left to fend for themselves.
This paper attempts to highlight the causes and characteristics of
homelessness and the nature of violence faced by homeless women, and
makes recommendations to address the crisis at various levels. While the
problems faced by homeless women living on the streets are ubiquitous
across the country, the paper uses empirical data and case studies from
Delhi and Bangalore. It is hoped that this paper will draw attention to
the plight of one of our society’s most marginalised constituencies and
urge the government to take urgent action to protect their human rights
and prevent their further abuse and marginalisation.
The Census of India defi nes ‘houseless people’ – as persons who are
not living in ‘census houses.’ The latter refers to ‘a structure with roof.’
Homelessness thus refers to those who are inadequately housed – without
even basic shelter over their head, not even a “kuccha” (unfi nished) slum
or shanty house. The United Nations in 1999 interpreted homeless as
including “those sleeping without shelter, in constructions not meant for
habitation and in welfare institutions.” The majority of the homeless in
India are found living in places such as roadsides, pavements, drainage
pipes, under staircases, or in the open, temple-mandaps, platforms and
the like’ (Census of India, 1991: 64).