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).