A Proposed Typology of Homelessness in India

By Anup Tripathi

Formal housing as an issue and as a social good remains a peripheral matter with regard to the public policy in India. Barring a few policies and programmes allocating housing to the rural and urban poor, and upgradation and redevelopment of slums, the Indian state has not been very enthusiastic in creating a universal system of formal housing for its population with varying needs. As a result, Indian cities are inhabitance sites of various kinds of informal housing arrangements, which more often than not, are difficult to classify as ‘slums’ or ‘homeless settlements’. Since citizenship entitlements are dependent upon the formal or recognized housing arrangements, a number of citizens living in informal housing arrangements have difficulty in accessing their citizenship rights. In extreme cases, they have to even live up with partial or absolute denial of citizenship rights. Thus, inaction of government in the realm of housing acted as a trigger for the civil society organizations to work on the issues pertaining to it.

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Dwelling arrangement of a homeless family at Girgaum Chowpatty, Mumbai

The usage of the term ‘homelessness’ in India began with the advocacy efforts and
intervention programmes undertaken by the civil society organizations. While planning and implementing interventions with the homeless people, civil society actors employ various criteria for identifying the homeless and use various terminologies for them. There are a number of social categories which have been identified as representing the homeless people.

Sometimes, for the purpose of intervention and also for giving a meaning to the agency of the homeless people, a number of labels are used for them. However, there are quite a few advantages and disadvantages of such articulations. In addition, there are a number of tensions and disagreements within the civil society discourse when it comes to defining homelessness.

A Proposed Typology of Homelessness
Housing is generally referred to as a lack of physical structure of living in the formal propertied system of housing and not as an opportunity for upward mobility or for attaining a stable condition of living. There are numerous such conceptualizations of homelessness and inadequate housing arrangements as done by the civil society actors and various state agencies. These conceptualizations create different constituencies of people with similar living conditions through various categorisations that are aloof from each other, if not pitted against each other. Rather than classifying people into precariously housed, inadequately housed, houseless or homeless etc., a cognition of homelessness should look it as active housing in face of the harsh urban life. Given my discomfort with the prevalent conceptualizations of homelessness, I would like to propose a typology of homelessness based on my PhD research work. I suggest that homelessness should be cognized through two distinct categories- 1) ‘precariat housing’ which looks at housing as opportunity and 2) ‘houseless people in need of care and protection’ for whom shelter homes can be envisaged as enablers and not as places of confinement.

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Bharat Nagar Slum in Wadala, Mumbai
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A precarious dwelling arrangement in Bharat Nagar

1. Precariat Housing (Housing as Opportunity)
Housing oneself in a city outside legal settlements including regularized slums requires tremendous fortitude and enterprise in an individual, family or group of individuals. The different kinds of inadequate dwelling arrangements on pavements, shop awnings,
unauthorized slums or ‘homeless settlements’, parks, pavements, platforms etc. indicate that the people residing in them look at housing as an opportunity to lead a stable or better life. The everyday life of such people shows that there are various kinds of material dimensions to housing like identity, citizenship entitlements, healthcare and sanitation, incomes and expenditures, finances and savings, availability of food and livelihood, social networks and relationships etc. which are socially produced and reproduced. These dimensions also help them gain a better condition of living for themselves or at least navigate through them.

Through their struggles, grit and determination, people living in such inadequate housing arrangements add on different dimensions to housing; thereby making it a compoidea required for a decent living rather than a mere physical structure for living. By actively housing themselves outside the formal housing system, these people seek to consolidate their ‘gains’. In my opinion, instead of referring these people as ‘homeless’ or ‘homeless migrants’ or ‘houseless’ or ‘precariously housed’ etc. or qualifying them under the umbrella terminology of ‘homelessness’, all types of informal inadequate housing arrangements should be referred to as Precariat Housing. ‘Precariat Housing’ is any kind of dwelling arrangement which is not formal and regularized. Most of the urban poor engaged in various kinds of economic activities house themselves in such precariat housing arrangements which is a progression for them in terms of consolidating their gains or attaining stability in their living situation. Therefore, the idea of viewing homelessness in terms of dispossession or lack of a normative physical structure of living does not do justice to the idea of housing as an opportunity. Hence, if homelessness or lack of housing is to be cognized as active housing, then referring to it as ‘precariat housing’ is useful in terms of presenting it before the state as an arena deserving state action in the form of policies and programmes. Referring to precariat housing through different categories like homelessness, houselessness, inadequate housing, precarious housing, non-regularized slums, pavement dwellings etc. is counter-productive since these categories do not speak to each other. The presence of different constituencies of people with similar housing conditions also limit the state action and civil society intervention in the arena of housing and welfare. In addition, the everyday life of the inadequately housed people shows that if the opportunities of housing are not supported or provided with, then people living under them get pushed to the margins from where it becomes very difficult to improve one’s life situation.

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A housing arrangement near Mumbai Central Station, Mumbai

2. Houseless People in Need of Care and Protection (Shelter as Enabler)
All those homeless people who are living on the most extreme margins of urban life- the ones who are not able to improve their life situation and are unfortunate in their lives, as a result of which they are leading a houseless life and have little care and support from others should be referred to as Houseless People in Need of Care and Protection. All such individuals and families including disaster affected, destitute and mentally ill amongst them should be provided with state run shelters which serve as enablers for them rather than being places of confinement. Such shelter homes can be conceived as service homes for providing various types of services and citizenship entitlements to persons in need of care and protection. The services may include providing identity documentation, legal aid, psychiatric care, counselling, healthcare, adult education, vocational training and job placements, anganwadi or ICDS related services, livelihood, repatriation, day care centres etc. Instead of referring to such people as homeless, I am using the term ‘Houseless People in Need of Care and Protection’. It is imperative that state being the ultimate protector and caretaker of all its residents takes care of them, and so, these people are not ‘homeless’ as they are to be provided care, support and protection by the state.

Dr Anup Tripathi is currently working as Assistant Professor at FLAME University Pune. His areas of interest include urban poverty, housing and environmental governance. This is an edited excerpt from his PhD thesis. 

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