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SHELTERLESS IN KARACHI

Every day is a struggle for the shelterless in Karachi, but they make do and find ways to survive.
Published Feb 23, 2020 07:20am

Pakistan’s largest metropolis is officially home to 16.5 million people, but many of its citizens cannot afford to live in homes. They spend their nights under the open skies, on footpaths or park benches, and their numbers are constantly growing. Who are they, why are they outside and why does the government continue to turn a blind eye towards them?



Ali* is a 25-year-old from Karachi. He works in a button-making factory in Landhi and earns 200-500 rupees a day. He was younger when his mother died and his father remarried. His home dynamics were never the same again. He stuck it out and attended school till ninth grade, but then finally decided to leave his home. He now sleeps on the footpath in front of Shaheen Complex. The footpath is clean and has tiles on it. Ali says that his relatives created such conditions that there was no other option for him except to live on the streets. He did not receive support or assistance from any government agency or non-governmental organisation (NGO). Until recently, Ali would carry his belongings — a shawl, pillow and blanket — in a bag. His shawl was recently stolen.

Ali eats at local hotels and sometimes has no option but to consume the food distributed outside the Shah Alam shrine on M.A. Jinnah Road. He says that he does not trust the free food provided by charities as he finds it substandard. He has a computerised national identity card (CNIC) and says that he is generally satisfied with his life on the streets.

The young man is part of Karachi’s sizable shelterless population. Attempting to exercise their right to the city, individuals like him muddle through various urban locations to identify possibilities to inhabit and build a life. In Karachi, such informal dwelling is a visible phenomenon in almost all neighbourhoods.

Men sit around a makeshift bonfire and consume tea during Karachi's winter | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Men sit around a makeshift bonfire and consume tea during Karachi's winter | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

According to the population census of 2017 in Pakistan, Karachi has a total population of 16.5 million. During this enumeration exercise, special effort was made to include the people sleeping on the streets and other such spaces. But the detailed results of the census, including the headcount of those sleeping on the streets, have not been announced. However, as per Pakistan: Urban Housing Issues (2018) by Arif Hasan and Hamza Arif, the housing demand in Karachi is 120,000 units per year. The formal sector provides only 42,000 units followed by 32,000 units by the informal sector. Unfortunately, there is a lack of information and documentation regarding Karachi’s shelter woes. And there is a need to explore the status of those who live without proper dwelling.

This author, along with a few teammates, conducted interviews with the shelterless who lived in various locations between 2018 and 2019. From this study, three typologies of spaces emerged that are commonly used by the shelterless as living spaces. The first type is livelihood-related spaces. Railway stations, bus terminals, top of pushcarts, extensions of shops and markets and garbage dumping yards/recycling enterprises can be included in this typology. The second type comprises ‘negotiated spaces’, including footpaths, unfinished and abandoned buildings, spaces underneath flyovers, parks and playgrounds, roads, green belts and shrines. Invisible spaces make up the third type. Shelterless individuals living in spaces along nullahs (natural water drains) and graveyards are two examples of such spaces.


LIVELIHOOD-RELATED SPACES

19-year-old Faris* works at the Karachi Cantonment Railway Station. The young man has to give 30 percent of his earnings to the contractor who employs him. Money is always tight for Faris but he makes do by living at the station. This has allowed him to build some useful friendships here. He rides back to his hometown in Sukkur by informally paying 100-200 rupees to the train guards (who know him). Most other nights, he sleeps on the benches and other open public spaces.

Faris is not alone. Many of the porters, workers on different stalls, day-wage labourers and non-listed porters at active stations also live at their place of work. These people acquire access to different ranges of spaces within the station complex. External landscapes and threshold spaces are generally used by those workers who do not have a formal and long-term link with activities inside the station. Porters and other workers access internal spaces for dwelling purposes.

White Star photo
White Star photo

The situation at bus terminals is similar.

The Baldia Town bus terminal is a public facility for buses and coaches heading to Quetta and other locations in Balochistan. Within the complex itself, a sizable number of workers use the paved spaces and waiting area benches as their resting spot. A lot of these young men do not have any other shelter available in Karachi. But even those who have relations or acquaintances in the city do not leave the terminal due to long working hours. The workers have some basic possessions such as mattresses and quilts, and take short naps between their work shifts. Most of these people go back to their homes in different parts of the country for 20-30 days a year but, for the rest of the year, their place of work is also their home.

According to the population census of 2017 in Pakistan, Karachi has a total population of 16.5 million. During this enumeration exercise, special effort was made to include the people sleeping on the streets and other such spaces. But the detailed results of the census, including the headcount of those sleeping on the streets, have not been announced.

Unlike workers at train stations and bus shops, others who live at their place of work may find themselves without a roof over their head. For example, after a hard day’s work, many pushcart operators pack up their merchandise and spread bedding on their carts, and go to sleep right there. Usually, this option is exercised as a group activity, with several vendors and their labourers sleeping on the carts. This is done to maintain a sense of security and exercise caution. In these situations, some vendors also take turns to keep awake and stand guard while the others sleep. Until recently, pushcart workers around Empress Market, Jodia Bazaar and other locations in the south, several markets in F.B. Area and Nazimabad in District Central, Landhi and Korangi, as well as pushcart concentrations along the main thoroughfares, were observed using this option. But more recently, in the wake of anti-encroachment operations in the city, pushcart vendors have started moving towards inner lanes and streets.

Similarly, a significant number of workers linked to the informal recycling industry live by the banks of the Lyari River, major nullahs and some adjacent spaces. Many of the labourers have no place to live, and some are forced to sleep at the edges of storage yards where the waste is sorted, packaged and stored. In some cases, the enterprises’ owners engage such shelterless labourers to continue working at night as shift watchmen. A significant number of these workers are found in Lasbela, Shershah and Pak Colony past midnight.


NEGOTIATED SPACES

Karachi has many spaces that the shelterless are able to access after fulfilling certain prerequisites prescribed by the local administration and other controlling stakeholders, or by adopting more informal negotiation tactics. An example of such spaces is footpaths.

Footpaths are an essential spatial component in Karachi, present along all major roads, streets and lanes in the city. At night, these footpaths become a desirable location for the shelterless to sleep on.

A homeless man sleeps on a pavement in Saddar | Stephan Andrew/White Star
A homeless man sleeps on a pavement in Saddar | Stephan Andrew/White Star

These shelterless individuals generally prefer places where they can sleep without being challenged by other users or the police. They mostly frequent corners or edges of the footpaths which are not intensely utilised for walking by pedestrians, especially during late evenings. Since shopkeepers, restaurant operators and other forms of retail businesses often extend their activities on to footpaths, the shelterless usually strike a working relationship with them. After the shops and other forms of business close down, the shelterless are allowed to sleep on the stoops of the shops. However, according to some who were interviewed, this option is only available to the shelterless who are known to the shopkeepers, or those who possess a CNIC or those who belong to the same class or tribal origin. The individuals who do not fit these criteria have to look for other options.

The options include looking for temporary shelter in the many dilapidated, abandoned and unfinished buildings in the city which are scattered in several older and newly emerging neighbourhoods. Two distinct patterns have been observed. In older parts of the city, the abandoned buildings and sites are accessed by street children, scavengers, petty labourers and workers associated with street vendors. In suburban locations, evidence suggests that shelterless families and single men approach the watchmen and other staff to seek temporary access to such buildings.

The number of shelterless people in Karachi is increasing fast, says a union council employee. He believes that the majority of these people come from outside Karachi. He says that migrants from South Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan freely squat in different locations of the city.

Many buildings in Karachi are half-constructed and some residential projects have been halted due to various reasons. The owners and managers of these projects generally do not object to shelterless individuals temporarily living on the threshold outside their buildings. In some cases, these informal residents pay a small sum as ‘rent’ to stay on the premises. The women of the family generally work as domestic staff in different nearby neighbourhoods. The men, however, were found to be jobless. They live off their wives’, sisters’ or mothers’ earnings. Some engage in part-time vocation of kabarris (junk buyers) using a pushcart. Others work as occasional petty labourers. The use of drugs is a common experience found among them.

Some shelterless individuals stay away from these buildings, choosing to live on the streets instead.

Men sleep on bedding and Panaflex materials on a road in Karachi | White Star
Men sleep on bedding and Panaflex materials on a road in Karachi | White Star

Bhagwandas*, a 30-year-old Hindu man originally from Hyderabad, lives under a flyover bridge in Nazimabad. He works as a street vendor and practically spends most of his time out on the streets of Karachi. The flyover in Nazimabad is only his latest temporary place of stay; he has lived in multiple such places over the past seven years.

Many of Bhagwandas’s relatives also live along the spaces under the flyover bridge. He and his clan members — including women — get water from a nearby mosque. They also use the mosque’s toilets. Some members of the family resort to begging. Whenever anyone is sick, they go to the nearby Abbasi Shaheed Hospital, a government-run facility. They also receive occasional help from the area’s residents who offer them food or small sums of money in charity. Policemen and the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) staff sometimes threaten Bhgawandas and his relatives, and try to extort bribes out of them.

Some of Bhagwandas’s family members benefit from the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) — a government facility that extends monthly stipends and pensions to the poor. Now an expanded social security programme, called Ehsaas, has also been launched by the federal government on the same principles and procedures. But Bhagwandas cannot take advantage of these programmes as he does not have a CNIC. Living out on the streets, the man often worries about the unpredictable law and order condition in Karachi. Otherwise, he says, he is generally satisfied. He sends about 4,500 rupees per month to his father in Hyderabad.

During the past 20 years, many grade-separated interchanges — such as the flyover under which Bhagwandas sleeps — have been constructed in Karachi to facilitate the smooth movement of vehicular traffic. The design and space allocation of these structures is such that options emerge for the shelterless people to live under them.

Others temporarily inhabit more scenic environs. There are many parks and playgrounds in Karachi where the shelterless sleep at night. Some parks have a watchman and security staff to keep these individuals out, but many of them informally pay the watchmen and gain access to the space.

Rizwan* is a 61-year-old originally from the city of parks, Lahore. He migrated to Karachi, nine years ago, in search of greater employment opportunities. He now works at a printing press and lives on a footpath along the wall of a public park in Arambagh. He says he lives here because the cost of commuting is too high even if he find affordable housing. By dwelling outside, he is able to save enough to send 15,000 rupees to his daughter who goes to school in Lahore.

Every day for the shelterless is a struggle, but they make do and find ways to survive in Karachi. Some develop working relationships with residents, social, religious and commercial enterprises to access water, sanitation and storage facilities.

Roads are another popular choice for the shelterless. The street morphology of major thoroughfares and roads is such that central medians are either hard paved or landscaped with grass cover. Shahrae Faisal, University Road, Shaheed-e-Millat Road, Shershah Suri Road and many other streets are where scores of people are found sleeping and squatting in the evening and after. The shelterless individuals here belong to diverse categories, origins and socioeconomic backgrounds. Some even sleep on the greenbelts because their nearby houses are overcrowded. These individuals are not shelterless per se, but possess inadequate living space. But a vast majority of the people sleeping on greenbelts are shelterless and live almost permanently in these spaces. Day-wage labourers, unskilled migrants to the city, drug addicts, street children, formally employed workers, vendors, petty criminals, operators of public vehicles and others are found spending their nights on such greenbelts.


SHRINES, MOSQUES AND GRAVEYARDS

For the shelterless, the shrines in Karachi are another popular destination. Many single males, families, elderly and disabled women, transgender people and day labourers temporarily live in the various public open spaces in the compounds of shrines. Larger shrines also have daily food distribution that is free for all. Police and administrative staff are also generally more lenient in these precincts. The ordinary shelterless person resorts to accessing shrine spaces as an initial choice. Often there are fights between the older and newer entrants in the complex for territory and access to better food and other similar privileges. Small to medium petty gangs also evolve in these precincts.

White Star photo
White Star photo

Mir* is a 17-year-old who lives on the threshold of the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine. He works as a day-wage labourer on different construction sites and earns about 700-800 rupees per day. He hails from Faisalabad and has no direct family members in Karachi or Faisalabad. He moved to Karachi seven months ago after his parents died in an accident. Being underage, he does not have a CNIC. Mir uses the toilets and bathrooms in the shrine compound and pays 10 rupees for each visit. Police and other law-enforcement agencies do not bother him. He obtains food from the shrine, and when he falls ill, he prays for health at the shrine or visits the nearby hospital.

Some mosques and graveyards also become popular spots for the shelterless. This only happens when the shelterless individuals are able to negotiate a deal with the caretakers of these spaces. In some cases, the relatives and acquaintances of caretakers get the privilege of living in graveyards. The usual places where these people are found are the paved extensions of flower shops inside the graveyards and shops preparing tombstones and fragrance supplies. Observation, interviews and field visits to graveyards located close to a nullah reveals that many criminals, drug sellers and muggers find refuge in graveyards. These spaces apparently provide an easy option to hide and escape in case of a crackdown by the police. Liaquatabad and Essa Nagri graveyards are examples of such spaces.


PERSPECTIVES OF OTHER STAKEHOLDERS

The number of shelterless people in Karachi is increasing fast, says a union council employee. He believes that the majority of these people come from outside Karachi. He says that migrants from South Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan freely squat in different locations of the city, including Liaquatabad. Many of them have a criminal record, but they still strike a working relationship with the local police staff if they are originally from the same geographic region.

An assistant sub-inspector of the police says that it is difficult to keep track of shelterless individuals, as they change places and opt for spaces where few people or city administration bother them. Nonetheless, the police keep a close eye on them. “I have seen many footpath dwellers who were lured to join criminal gangs,” he says. “Ring leaders of such crime syndicates only target able-bodied, young and mentally sharp lads.”

Men have dinner on a footpath by a busy road in Karachi | White Star
Men have dinner on a footpath by a busy road in Karachi | White Star

He says that many of the others who come to Karachi in search of job opportunities live outside only temporarily; once they “connect well” with the job market, they move into the katchi abadis (squatter settlements).

Sanitation staff and medical doctors say that the shelterless cause several problems for them. But others have accepted them as part of the city.

Rehan*, a staff member of the Edhi Foundation, is responsible for serving free food to anyone who comes to the centre. Food is cooked at several central locations in the city by Edhi kitchens and is served in the mornings, afternoons and early evenings. The menu keeps changing according to the health and nutrition requirements of the people. Anyone and everyone is welcome to eat here; the only condition is that people are not allowed to take food with them. We observed that the homeless, travellers, low-paid workers and sometimes even white-collar workers eat here.


GETTING TO KNOW KARACHI’S SHELTERLESS POPULATION

The shelterless can be grouped into five types. The first type is individuals who possess no evidence of citizenship. They cross into Pakistan through illegal means and eventually find their way to Karachi. Almost all of these individuals are from Afghanistan and very few are from Iran and Bangladesh. According to local police officials, these individuals often possess criminal records and intentions.

A shelterless woman in Karachi | Hussain Afzal/White Star
A shelterless woman in Karachi | Hussain Afzal/White Star

The second type also includes individuals who have no evidence of citizenship, but unlike the first group, they have spent most of their lives in Pakistan. Many are born to parents who were illegal entrants to the country. Unlike many in the earlier category, the vast majority of these individuals are engaged in lawful economic and social activities. Many of them are sweepers, day-wage labourers and helpers in different hazardous pursuits (such as cleaning of underground oil tanks in industrial areas). These individuals are often underpaid and mistreated by their employers.

The administrative responses to the plight of the shelterless are grossly limited. The federal government has recently announced social support programmes. However, their access is limited to those possessing valid CNICs and other administrative verification.

The third type comprises aliens with or without evidence of entry to Pakistan. Very few of them possess the identification document from the National Alien Registration Authority (Nara). The people interviewed in this category include folks of Bengali origin engaged in shrimp cleaning in Machar Colony, Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar living in Orangi and Korangi, and Afghans informally living in the wholesale vegetable and fruit market along the Super Highway.

The fourth type is people who migrate to Karachi and claim to possess CNICs — some of which have been illegally procured by paying bribes to the concerned officials. These individuals are engaged in different vocations and labour options in the city.

Some of the shelterless have ended up on the streets because of broken families, family feuds, becoming orphans, economic compulsions or psychological conditions | White Star
Some of the shelterless have ended up on the streets because of broken families, family feuds, becoming orphans, economic compulsions or psychological conditions | White Star

The last type of shelterless individuals have legally-obtained CNICs and, therefore, more legal rights. They are first- or second-generation residents of Karachi. Some of them have ended up on the streets because of broken families, family feuds, becoming orphans, economic compulsions or psychological conditions.

During the study, many drug addicts were spotted on the streets. But most of them were not in the state of mind to discuss their predicaments or speak coherently. A few of them were hostile and agitated. They would usually become violent when approached for a discussion.


THEIR CITY

Every day for the shelterless is a struggle, but they make do and find ways to survive in Karachi. Some develop working relationships with residents, social, religious and commercial enterprises to access water, sanitation and storage facilities. Local mosques are increasingly frequented for water, toilets and even food during Ramazan. Interestingly, most mosques do not stop people of other faiths from accessing these facilities in their premises. However, none of the mosques allow the shelterless to sleep inside. Roadside restaurants and eateries also lend support in the form of occasional free food and allowing the shelterless to store their meagre belongings from time to time. Affluent people also give money to these restaurants to feed a certain number of needy people on a regular basis.

Two children smile for the camera while lying down on a pavement | White Star
Two children smile for the camera while lying down on a pavement | White Star

Still, many predicaments continue to impact the shelterless. During extreme winters, summers and rainfall, life becomes even more difficult for them. Often their quilts are stolen while they are asleep. Sudden showers, which were frequent during 2019 in Karachi, force the shelterless to relocate to various makeshift options. The prevalence of diseases and sickness is also rampant among this population. When they get sick, they suffer for a long time due to inappropriate diets, lack of access to proper medicines and an absence of awareness.

Intergroup disputes, bullying, sexual harassment and intimidation by criminal rings are other common problem faced by those living in parks, playgrounds and on footpaths. These individuals are also frequently used as scapegoats in legal matters. In brawls, the relatively powerful criminals succeed in getting the shelterless implicated in criminal cases.


ADMINISTRATIVE RESPONSES

The administrative responses to the plight of the shelterless are grossly limited. The federal government has recently announced social support programmes. However, their access is limited to those possessing valid CNICs and other administrative verification.

On the directives of Prime Minister Imran Khan in September 2018, Panah Gahs or shelter facilities are being set up in different cities, including Karachi. The facilities include a tent erected mostly in front of public hospitals where a large number of patients and their family members come to visit for treatment. Basic bedding material and free food is supplied by local charities. A Panah Gah has, in fact, opened near Civil Hospital in Karachi South. About 100-120 people, mostly the accompanying family members of the patients, are allowed to avail the services at the Panah Gah. The beneficiaries of this facility say that they were satisfied. However, many believe that this project will be short-lived and will last only as long as the present government does.

In any case, the major contribution in running and managing such facilities is made by the local charities that were already providing these services. The government has only added a tent and the comfort of bedding material. Nonetheless, these facilities are particularly useful for elderly people who accompany sick patients for longer periods of time.

Other programmes such as the BISP and the recently devised Ehsaas programme are also dependent on administrative scrutiny. Most of the shelterless neither know about these options nor possess the documentary support to access them.

As the detailed census results, which include numbers of individuals sleeping on the streets and other such spaces, have yet to be released, it is clear that we are a long way from even understanding the shelterless population problem in Karachi, let alone addressing it. 


*Names have been changed to protect identities


Based on the paper Dwelling Without Dwelling: Predicaments and Possibilities Experienced by the Shelterless in Karachi by Noman Ahmed


The writer is a professor and dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Management Sciences at NED University, Karachi