On 19th February, 2020, the United Nations Commission for Social Development formulated a historic resolution. The resolution on homelessness was the first of its kind and highlighted the many facets of this grave issue. In its text, the resolution recognized and elaborated upon the many possible factors that contribute to people being born or pushed into homelessness. Stating that the problems were only going to worsen in the times ahead, the commission called for a thorough response by all sectors within government and societies (“First-ever United Nations Resolution on Homelessness”, 2020).
While it is encouraging to see that the issue of homelessness is finally getting the attention it deserves, we have to acknowledge the shortcomings of the past. For years, our societies have turned a blind eye towards those languishing on the outskirts of our communities. This negligent attitude has resulted in an alarming number of people not having an adequate place to live in. In the last global survey conducted by the United Nations in 2005, an estimated 100 million people were homeless worldwide (“Global Homelessness Statistics – Homeless World Cup”, n.d.). In addition to that, almost 1.6 billion people were deemed to be residing in inadequate living conditions. These numbers have only increased since then and it is imperative that we reverse this trend.
In the quest to combat homelessness, it is crucial that we first understand how it comes about. Drugs, anti-social behavior and other correlated causes are often touted as reasonable explanations for people ending up on the streets. However, this is not always the case and studies point towards shortcomings in the wider societal structure. These deficiencies in the system are responsible for much of the upheaval homeless people face. For example, one study directly interacted with homeless individuals in order to get their perspectives on how they had found themselves without a roof over their heads. The participants of the study believed that their social conditions affected their life chances. These conditions were responsible for their low quality of social connections, poor educational attainment, insecure employment and other reduced life opportunities available to them (Mabhala et al., 2017). It is crucial to realize that all of the aforementioned reasons may vary from person to person and it is impossible to single out one particular cause as being the most important. However, this study, and other studies of a similar nature, do establish one clear conclusion. This conclusion is that governments and other institutions have to set up an effective safety net that can protect people and prevent them from dropping into homelessness with the help of precautionary measures.
Focusing on Pakistan, it is clear for everyone to see that homelessness is an issue which needs to be treated on a priority basis. In 2016, a survey conducted by UNDP concluded that almost forty percent of the country’s population lived in “multidimensional” poverty (Klasra, 2018). In simpler words, four out of ten people in Pakistan are underprivileged and battling poverty in some way, shape or form. Rough estimates from various sources conclude that almost 20 million people can be categorized as homeless. This gargantuan number speaks for itself.
Homeless people in Pakistan have to experience many challenges. Firstly, they are exposed to violent victimization (Muhammad Gadit, 2011). This can lead to mental health problems and a higher susceptibility to indulging in substance abuse. A lack of hygiene and absence of a proper habitat also increase the chance of physical ailments. One of the main reasons for this is the lack of protection from extremes in temperature. Improper housing can lead to the young as well as the elderly being exposed to the extreme hot and cold. Well-heated homes are key to maintaining the health of the elderly as cold and freezing homes are linked to mortality (Azad, 2019). These are just some of the effects, however, and more research needs to be done in Pakistan to figure out the exact effects of homelessness. Currently, very little work has been done on this subject. Hence, most of these observations are based upon anecdotal reports.
The global pandemic has also affected the homeless population more disproportionately than the general public. Just like the earlier pandemics of SARS and Influenza, the homeless population poses unique vulnerabilities to themselves and public health. Rate of spread of infection, numbers affected, and mortality are all higher in them with a minimal percentage of detection and treatment (Banerjee & Bhattacharya, 2020). The COVID-19 is potentially more harmful than the previous viral diseases as it spreads much more quickly. Thus, the homeless pose a major risk to themselves and the general public if they live in developing countries like Pakistan. In these countries, most of the homeless remain untreated and act as untraced carriers of the virus. It is to be noted that the government of Pakistan has taken some measures to protect the homeless during the pandemic. The government of Punjab has ordered authorities to keep all shelter homes open to ensure street sleepers have a roof over their heads during the global coronavirus outbreak (Rasheed, 2020). However, these measures are not enough. There are already very few shelters in Punjab and Pakistan as a whole. With this pandemic, the shelters are bound to reach maximum capacity very quickly. Hence, alternative solutions must be thought of to counteract this.
As we can see, the issue of homelessness in Pakistan has not been dealt with in the manner that it should have. A dearth of research and statistics points to a lack of focus on the part of the authorities in power. Furthermore, although the current and previous governments have tried to provide affordable housing to the homeless, they have not been able to bring about tangible change. NGOs have to fill the void left behind by the inadequacies of the people in charge. The initial steps that organizations can take are as follows:
1. The NGOs should conduct thorough statistical as well as anecdotal research on homelessness. To do this, welfare organizations should first focus on urban areas such as Karachi and Lahore. By compiling data, the NGOs can more effectively understand the big picture. This will help the organizations develop more curated solutions. Along with this, this data can then be presented to the public to increase awareness regarding this topic.
2. The NGOs can also partner up with organizations such as the PDP Foundation who are doing wonderful work to combat homelessness. The foundation targets those living in slums and below the poverty line, with a particular focus on boys living on the street and girls at risk of dropping out of school in urban and rural slums (“Pakistan – Homeless World Cup”, n.d.). In 2015 alone the foundation helped around 2,000 children. By working with such an organization, Aitebar can increase its experience regarding homelessness and how to take initiatives to deal with it.
Azad, A. (2019, December 4). Housing And Health. DAWN.COM. https://www.dawn.com/news/1520345
Banerjee, D., & Bhattacharya, P. (2020, May 14). The Hidden Vulnerability Of Homelessness In The COVID-19 Pandemic: Perspectives From India - Debanjan Banerjee, Prama Bhattacharya, 2020. SAGE Journals. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0020764020922890
Klasra, K. (2018, November 12). ‘Shelter Homes:’ Understanding Imran Khan’s Initiative For Pakistan’s Homeless. Al Arabiya English. https://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2018/11/13/-Shelter-homes-Understanding-Imran-Khan-s-initiative-for-Pakistan-s-homeless.html
Mabhala, M., Yohannes, A., & Griffith, M. (2017, August 22). Social Conditions Of Becoming Homelessness: Qualitative Analysis Of Life Stories Of Homeless Peoples. International Journal For Equity In Health. https://equityhealthj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12939-017-0646-3
Muhammad Gadit, A. (2011, March 1). JPMA - Journal Of Pakistan Medical Association. JPMA. https://jpma.org.pk/article-details/2658
Rasheed, K. (2020, March 25). Punjab To Keep Shelter Homes Open Amid Outbreak | The Express Tribune. The Express Tribune. https://tribune.com.pk/story/2184323/1-punjab-keep-shelter-homes-open-amid-outbreak
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(n.d.-b). Pakistan - Homeless World Cup. Homeless World Cup. Retrieved July 25, 2020, from https://homelessworldcup.org/portfolio-posts/pakistan/
(2020, March 9). First-ever United Nations Resolution On Homelessness. DISD. https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/2020/03/resolution-homelessness/