Empty government buildings can be homeless shelters, India top court says

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Local authorities should consider converting empty government properties into night shelters for the homeless, India’s highest court said, amid growing concern about the number of deaths on the streets during winter months.

The judges said on Thursday that altering existing properties would be the “best option” to address the needs of the homeless as it would not require states to spend money on building shelters.

The court’s directive - which is not binding - came after a particularly cold winter in Delhi with 44 deaths reported in the first week of the year alone, according to Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal commenting on media reports on Twitter.

One activist told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the court’s directive was “positive” and it echoed the recommendation of her organization and other campaigners.

“Not only would this be a more durable solution, but it would also be more cost-effective for state governments,” said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of the New Delhi-based advocacy group Housing and Land Rights Network.

Census figures from 2011 showed about 1.8 million homeless people in India, although activists believe the true number is at least 3 million.

This week’s directive follows a 2012 ruling in which the Supreme Court ordered states to build shelters for the homeless.

Few states have complied, however, citing the high cost of land.

Rakesh Kumar Singh, a lawyer for Rajasthan state, said on Friday that the Supreme Court had asked state governments “to explore whether government buildings can be used as night shelters for homeless people”.

Many of India’s urban homeless are migrant workers who come to cities in search of jobs, and are forced to live in flimsy shacks and under flyovers because of a critical shortage of affordable housing.

Some states such as Gujarat and Bihar are building shelters for migrant workers, with options such as long-term rentals, clinics and family rooms.

“However, shelters are only the first step on a continuum of housing rights, and government efforts must be directed towards enabling the homeless to access adequate housing,” Chaudhry said.

The government’s Housing for All program aims to build 20 million urban housing units and 30 million rural homes by 2022.

With several states lagging behind on their targets, freeing up surplus land owned by government agencies such as the railways and ports for affordable housing could more easily help meet the goal, experts have said.