In India, approximately 4 million people are homeless and 65 million people reside in urban slums. One in four people lives in unsanitary slums.
Homelessness is a phenomenon that affects the country and its citizens at large. It impacts all facets of the country’s development and puts the country’s growth and progress in a vulnerable position. Homelessness is a public health problem as it deals with unlawful residing conditions with no access to health care.
The homeless often suffer from chronic illnesses due to proximity with other unhealthy people, eating non-nutritious food (composed mostly of starch), sleeping outside and bearing the harsh weather conditions. Moreover, without the ability to use restrooms in businesses and public places, homeless people have to often relieve themselves in public, propagating unhealthy and unsanitary conditions in the community as well.
The lack of housing solutions also creates a ripple effect in sectors such as infrastructure, employment, household wealth, health, education, poverty levels, maternal and child mortality, and women’s participation in the workforce. Thus, it can be concluded that homelessness is also an economic problem. Homelessness is also a deterrent to an area’s tourism and generates an expense, rather than income. But arguably the most important reason to fight homelessness is that it is a human tragedy. The citizens of our own country living on the streets, susceptible to extreme weather and violence, stripped of dignity and our collective respect is horrifying.
Homelessness is the most indicative symptom of the country’s stance on the right to housing and lack of respect. However, homelessness is not just a ‘rooflessness’. It is more than just a simple space. It is a legal and social identity. A home is associated with emotional wellbeing and establishes roots. Homelessness strips people of all these rights and creates a self-isolating experience. There are 7 major reasons for homelessness in India. They usually stem from untrustworthy relationship dynamics and result in experiences like domestic violence and abuse.
The abandonment of family members considered to be “unproductive” also contributes to homelessness. Senior citizens, mentally or physically disabled are often abandoned by their families because of their inability to contribute economically. Homelessness also affects women significantly more. Unmarried pregnant women, Women giving birth to girls and divorced women forced to depend on others for sustenance are the biggest victims. Unemployment and major life changes are another contributing factor. Undeniably, the most significant reason is poverty and lack of affordable housing with a disconnect in the system.
“Housing for All – 2020” or Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana is a forerunner task that has been taken up by the government. This mammoth mission will provide subsidies for building low-cost homes in both rural and urban areas. However, are low-cost homes the only solution to homelessness? India has experienced rapid urbanization in the last few decades. unbalanced economic development and displacement due to the extreme construction of transportation hubs and infrastructure concentrating in cities. This has forced people to move from rural conglomerates to urban centers for employment. However, most cities people migrate to are not planned enough to accommodate them. The disproportion between supply and demand of housing tends to deny housing to many citizens altogether. Unemployment due to urbanization further widens the gap between the lower and upper tiers of the middle class. This problem is slowly being tackled by lightening the load on major cities like Mumbai and Delhi and focusing on the development of identified areas like Gurgaon and Nashik.
Unplanned Cities and organic development in certain pockets also heighten the issue. For example, in Bengaluru, the capital city of Karnataka, India, a large number of low-cost houses sit vacantly and have no takers despite housing almost 25,000 homeless people. These ‘low-cost’ houses have been identified to be unliveable and not self-sustaining in the long term. These societies are built in areas with scarce potable water supply, no transportation access, no employment opportunities. Alienating the homeless with bad urban planning does not erase the problem. What can urban planners and the government do? The city must offer well-rounded, transit-oriented development for distant areas, emphasizing both physical and social infrastructure. This will make more low-cost areas viable and liveable. Situating them in the proximity to employment hubs will also help in lifting the poverty line.
As architects, the problem of homelessness does not end at designing sustainable and affordable houses. It extends to urban landscape design as well. Architects generally suggest ‘hostile architecture’ to combat violence and homelessness, however, this is counter-productive, as hostile or defensive architecture often targets people who use or rely on public space more than others, like people who are homeless, by restricting the behaviors they engage in and their access to public spaces altogether resulting in increased violence.
Examples of hostile architecture can be seen everywhere. Studs and spikes embedded in flat services to prevent the homeless from sleeping in those areas, sloped window sills and benches with armrests are also used to achieve the same result. With these techniques, we’re building barriers and walls around people and their problems. This comprises urban life. Acknowledging that homelessness is part of the urbanscape and designing more emphatically is the need of the hour. The irony of public places discouraging public use should not be lost on architects.
Homelessness is to be tackled systematically in phases and looking at affordable housing as the invariable solution is inept. Policies imperative to promote innovation, improving affordability, transparency, sustainability and growth have to be taken at the housing and urban planning stage. This calls for collaborative, multi-pronged and concentrated effort from all stakeholders – the government, urban planners and architects.