Hiding behind a large concrete wall at the end of a series of narrow alleyways, it was, I thought, an unlikely place to find a homeless shelter. I walked in, slowly making my way through the blue gate as the shelter dog, Apu, greeted me. The feel of the shelter – spacious and bright – was a welcome contrast to the congested path leading up to the shelter. Roshni, the shelter coordinator, introduced me to the residents one-by-one as they sat in the recreation room playing karom and chess. I joined them, in silence, offering a self-conscious smile, unable to verbally communicate. I stayed, sitting with the residents, for a few hours. As I left, this my first visit to the shelter, I felt a connection with the place — with the men, the space, the ethos of it all, really. I knew I’d be back many times in the days and weeks and months to come.
The shelter — The Dooming Kuppam Open Shelter for Homeless Men with psychosocial disabilities — is run as a public private partnership between the Chennai Corporation (the city government) and The Banyan (an NGO). The shelter was opened in 2010 by the Corporation following a Supreme Court order that mandated there be one homeless shelter for every 100,000 people. Almost exactly one year back, in October 2012, The Banyan took over the day-to-day and strategic management of the shelter. It is still funded by the Corporation. There are currently about 25 men who stay at the shelter, and another 10 to 15 who access the shelter during the day for food and bathing. The shelter is an open shelter, which means that men can come and go as they wish without restriction.
I’ve visited the shelter almost every day since my arrival, gradually getting to know the residents by offering of my presence. Little by little, I’ve felt my bond with the men grow. Aarav, the resident who works as the gatekeeper, has learned my name. (And, I must add, can pronounce my name much better than I can his.) Sandeep now smiles when we make eye contact. The other day, as we were sitting next to each other, Rudra put his hand on my knee. Small but, I hope, significant gestures.
In collaboration with the Joy of Giving Week and Happy City Happy People campaign, the shelter staff organized an event, titled Under The Stars, which offered individuals the opportunity to sleep rough. The ideas was for the participants to gain some insight into what it is like to be without a safe and comfortable place to sleep. I decided to participate.
The day came. I arrived at the shelter 8:00am, yoga mat in hand and pillow in bag, prepared to spend a night sleeping at the Lighthouse train station in Mylapore. I accompanied the staff for the event preparations throughout the day. Sometime in the early afternoon we sat down to discuss some of the final logistics. This discussion turned into a heated — some might even say fierce — debate about how the night’s events should unfold. How authentic of an experience did we want it to be? Would it even be possible to replicate an authentic experience of what it is like to be homeless? Should we provide blankets and water? These questions held extreme symbolic significance to the staff involved in organizing the event. There was a palpable feat that the event would only serve to romanticize and exotify the lived reality of those who sleep on the streets. To me, this debate was refection of the staff’s deep commitment to and solidarity with the homeless. In the end it was decided that blankets and water should be brought, but offered only upon request.
Later in the evening the staff gathered the residents of the shelter to brief them on the upcoming events of the night. They explained the premise of the event, saying that it was an attempt to get a glimpse into what it is like to sleep on the streets. However, they were clear in stating that they in no way thought a single night on the streets –resting with the knowledge that you are only hours away from a clean bed, warm shower, hot meal, and supportive community — could capture what it is like to be homeless. One of the residents, a relatively new face in the crowd, having only been around for a few weeks, stood up and declared, “So this is an attempt for normal people to not only to talk and eat with us, but to get some real experience doing it themselves.” It seems that he understood what the night was about.
By 8:00pm over forty-five people made their way to the shelter. We showed up, as a group of individuals, each of us holding our own set of expectations and motivations, but tied together by a single objective: to make it through the night. Dinner was served, words were spoken, and we made our way to the train station.
Upon arriving we were greeted by an old, homeless woman. She, understandably, seem confused by our presence. She appeared to be drunk. As soon as she saw me, she moved towards me, asking for money. We brought food packs, so I offered one to her. She was thankful, but persisted in her requests for money. I sat. She sat next to me. Others seemed to think this was the perfect photo opportunity. I silently disagreed. Many came up to us, asking the women for consent to take a photograph. She excitedly agreed. However, no one seemed to think of asking me if it was okay if they took a photo of me. It wasn’t that I mind being photographed. Rather, it was that I felt like I was objectifying the women. That I was playing the all too familiar heroic white man role, a performance I had no interest in taking part in. And maybe I was being objectified, too? But something kept me from speaking up, so they took the pictures.
People started settling into their places. Groups were formed. Some came with the clear intention to sleep straight away, while others seemed comfortable with the idea of staying up through the night. A group of men from the shelter came to stay with us. I thought about joining them. But I decided against that. In such moments — moments when I not sure what to do — I often like to give myself some space. I walked to the far end of the train station, unraveled my yoga mat, and laid in thought. As I sat there, physically and mentally isolated, I let myself sink into a reflection on homelessness. I thought about the meaning of the word: homelessness — to be without a home. What does it mean to be without a home, I wondered? We often think of a home as a physical location, a roof over our head. But, I think, being without a home is about more than just the absence of something material. Being homeless is often also about not having access to work, health care, food, education, or community. And those were things that we could not experientially understand by sleeping on the streets for a night.
After some reflecting and writing I covered my body with a sheet, closed my eyes, and tried to retire for the night. I’m guessing it was around midnight, unsure of the exact time as I switched off my mobile. Mosquito’s ate my feet and arms but a combination of the desire to resist luxuries and injudicious thought kept me from applying a repellent. I laid for a while, maybe an hour, before I got up for the first time. I collected a piece of poster paper and packs of crayons and markers that we, the staff, brought from the shelter. Without a plan, I started scribbling. Some words came onto the paper. I used the texture of the ground we (attempted) to sleep on in order to make imprints of circles and lines on the paper. Satisfied with the result, I set out to sleep again.
I kind-of-sort-of slept for a few hours. At 4:30am everyone came together to share reflections and drink tea. I didn’t join the circle of reflection. I felt much more comfortable sitting with the residents of the shelter and listening. Plus, I was really tired and felt insecure about my capacity to say something worthy of others attention. As I sat back, listening, I was amazed at the type of inspiration and insight many took away from the night. I wondered what it was about the events of the night that created a space so conducive to what appeared to be genuine introspection. It seemed to be the combination of two factors: (1) purposefully existing in the space that the homeless often inhabit and (2) intentionally reflecting upon the experiential aspect of being homeless. Each exercise alone, just experiencing or just reflecting, might open up some space for insight, but I think the power of this experience was the combination of the two exercises.
Ten feet away from our circle of reflection, to my right, were two individuals, what looked to be a mom and her son. They were there, sleeping in each other’s arms, not to participate in some exercise but rather because this was their reality. I wondered what their story was – why were they sleeping in a train station – but resigned to the fact that I would probably never know as we packed up our bags and returned to lives of privilege, access, and opportunity.
It was about 6:30am when I got back to the shelter after the night out. The residents were awake, taking care of their morning chores, and eating their breakfast of idly and sambar. I walked inside and quickly collapsed on a mattress alongside Apu.
I awoke, about an hour later, to the noise of others entering the room. Slowly, I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and put on my glasses. I was still in a daze, but I knew what I was seeing: the young boy and his mother from the train station. How and why did they end up here, I wondered? The boy came and sat with me on the mattress. He was shy, but Apu — as he always does — gave him reason to smile. His mom sat on a couch across the room, her face showing wear far beyond her age. The boy, who told him name was Sunil, saw my phone on the corner of the mattress. He asked if it was mine and if he could play with it. I nodded, he smiled. After some time the shelter staff came in the room and told me what happened. Some of the participants of Under The Stars event spoke with Sunil and his mom, Preeti, at the train station. Through a long conversation, they found out that they needed legal aid, and that Preeti was severely suicidal. The Banyan – as they have done for so many families before – offered to help. They suggested that Preeti and Sunil stay at the Health Center in Kovalam until the following Friday, when they could go to Adaikalam, The Banyan’s transit care center, where they would be holding their weekly legal aid cell.
A few hours passed and it was time for me to leave the shelter. I gathered my bags and said my goodbyes to the residents. As I walked away, I felt a deep sense of joy and warmth in my heart: I’d realized that I’d found a home.