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The idea of home is associated with a physical sense of safety and comfort. In winter, more than any other time, we crave the cozy warmth of our homes and beds. But the same season is terrible for those who do not have access to these things. It is right, therefore, to pay attention to the reality of having to live without a secured and comfortable situation of housing, or homelessness. We may ask ourselves: why does the law appear so myopic, that those who are struggling to house themselves, are treated for this very reason as irregular or illegal, and hence denied the help and resources that they need? Why do the ‘homeless’ tend to be an overlooked, rather than cared for, group? In this essay, Dr. Anup Tripathi, Assistant Professor of Sociology, traces the problem down to language itself, and the terms by which we have conceptualized homelessness. He proposes a new way of seeing and speaking, in which the ‘homeless’ are not defined by their lack, but by their ongoing efforts to improve their lot, and by the responsibility of State agencies towards them. Thus, he speaks of those who are struggling to house themselves despite all odds as people in precariat housing arrangements (‘precariat’- a word derived from ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat’) and of the housing-destitute as people who are in need of care and shelter, by the civil society and the State.

Housing as an issue and social good remains a peripheral matter with regard to 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 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 endure partial or complete denial of such rights. The inaction of the government in the realm of housing becomes a trigger for civil society organizations to work on the issues pertaining to it. In fact, the usage of the term ‘homelessness’ in India began with the advocacy efforts and intervention programmes undertaken by civil society organizations. While planning and implementing interventions with so-called homeless people, civil society actors have employed various identifying criteria and used a number of terminologies for them. There are a number of social categories which have been identified as representing homeless people. At the same time, there are a number of tensions and disagreements within the civil society discourse when it comes to defining homelessness.

A Proposed Typology of Homelessness

Homelessness 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 performed by civil society actors and various State agencies. Unfortunately, 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. Therefore, I propose that rather than classifying people into precariously housed, inadequately housed, houseless or homeless etc., a true theorizing of homelessness should see it as active housing in the 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 research work. I suggest that homelessness be understood via two distinct categories:

1. Precariat Housing (Housing as Opportunity)
Housing oneself in a city outside legal settlements requires tremendous fortitude and enterprise. 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, sanitation, incomes and expenditures, finances, savings, availability of food, livelihood, social networks, relationships etc. which are socially produced and reproduced. These dimensions also help them gain a better condition of living for themselves. Through their struggles, grit and determination, people living in such inadequate housing arrangements add on different dimensions to housing; thereby making it a composite idea pertaining to a decent living rather than a mere physical structure for inhabitation. By actively housing themselves outside the formal housing system, these people seek to consolidate their ‘gains’. Instead of referring to them as ‘homeless’ or ‘homeless migrants’ or ‘houseless’ or ‘precariously housed’ etc., or qualifying them under the umbrella terminology of ‘homelessness’, I propose that all types of informal and inadequate housing arrangements 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. It is important to understand that this 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 their real-life pursuit of housing as opportunity. Their lack of housing ought to be recognized for what it is: the active pursuit of housing. Referring to it as ‘precariat housing’ would then be useful in terms of presenting it before the State as an arena deserving of appropriate policies and programmes. On the other hand, referring to such precariat housing via 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 limits 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, then people living under them get pushed to the margins from where it becomes very difficult to improve one’s life situation.

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 the 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’, because it is imperative that the State, being the ultimate protector and caretaker of all its residents takes care of them. Therefore, these people are not ‘homeless’ as they are to be provided care, support and protection by the State.

- Prof. Anup Tripathi, Assistant Professor - Sociology

*Views expressed are personal.