According to Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, homelessness is the state of having no home. Unlike the common perception, it is also true that not all homeless people need help with food, clothes, and shelter. “We for our part help those struggling to meet their basic needs and who are living on streets and public places,” says Suman Bartaula, Secretary, Manab Sewa Ashram, the preeminent NGO working for the rehabilitation of the homeless in Nepal.
The ashram, established in 2012 in Hetauda, currently serves 15 districts across all seven provinces. Its Samakhusi branch in Kathmandu has, according to Bartaula, tried to rescue as many people living in streets and public places of the national capital as it can. Yet not all of them want to be ‘rescued’ or to lead a confined existence.
The people who actually need institutional help are those who have no homes, no ones to look after them, and those who suffer from various mental and physical ailments. “They are our primary concern. We rescue them as soon as we hear of them and find them,” adds Bartaula.
Another group is comprised of those who have been homeless for long and even enjoy their status. They are mostly men aged 16-40 and they mainly engage in begging or menial work picking plastic. Some are addicted to drugs and alcohol. “We try to rescue them too, but in most cases, they don’t want to be looked after. They often run away. That is why we are now focusing on the truly needy ones,” he informs.
Bartaula’s claim was verified by two people found in the Pashupatinath Temple area on a recent day. Rabindra Karki, 45, doesn’t know where he was born. He has been living in Pashupati area collecting garbage for 24 years. He sleeps anywhere he likes, mostly in the open with little to keep him warm. The ashram had tried to shelter him too. But Karki didn’t like it there. “That life was suffocating,” he says.
Similarly, sleeping under the open sky in the Pashupati area is Krishna Bahadur Karki, 36. Born in Kavre, he came to Pashupati after his father and siblings died and his mother abandoned him. He too had been taken in by an organization. “What I need is not rescue but a job. I don’t want to depend on anyone,” he says. Karki hopes to land a job when the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic die down.
Bartaula of the ashram says, eventually, everyone needs help. The people who are willingly homeless are not living healthy lives, and their physical and mental health deteriorate with time. They need help thereafter. “Of course, we are always there if they ever need our help,” Bartaula says.
Among those the Kathmandu branch of the ashram caters to are mostly women, the elderly, those with mental problems, orphans, and children abandoned by their parents.
“Homelessness is a vicious cycle,” argues Ishwor Man Dangol, Spokesperson, of Kathmandu Metropolitan City. “You rescue one person and another homeless person has already come to the street. So you can only manage homelessness, not do away with it entirely.”
Kathmandu Metropolitan City in 2017 came up with a plan to relocate the willing homeless of Kathmandu to the ashram and started a campaign to make Kathmandu “homeless-free”. “Of the 1,400 homeless people identified by the campaign in the previous fiscal year, we reunited 300 with their families,” informs Dangol.
The ashram currently shelters 1,068 people of the 4,907 it has rescued thus far. Out of those rescued, 1,513 were reunited with the families, 1,950 were re-established in their communities, while 376 died. Of those currently in its Kathmandu shelter, 357 are women (age 16-40), 352 are men, 271 are senior citizens, and 98 are children.
Bartaula claims that currently there must be only 1,000-1,500 homeless people in the entire country who need help but have not received it. And the ashram is making a renewed effort to reach even these few left behind.
“Presently our National Rescue Program team is on a Mechi-Mahakali tour and it has already rescued 350 people,” he informs.
The ashram rents five houses in Kathmandu to look after the homeless and is planning to add more with government help. The KMC is helping the ashram on this.