I saved this tweet from Nitin Pai (chief honcho and writer at The Indian National Interest) sometime in the first half of 2010. The operative phrase is “ought to”. The sad reality is that for most people (and I include myself in this category), the dominant emotions are sadness, guilt and frustration. Where’s the fury at the indifferent Indian state one might ask? There’s such a massive gap between the expectations of the Indian citizen and the reality of the Indian state that the daily sight of small kids doesn’t register on the fury meter. The guilt and frustration arises from the fact that besides doling small change, one seemingly cannot (or will not) do anything which has the potential to get begging kids off the streets.

Which brings us to the question our 4 year old asked sometime back – “why do we give biscuits/money to some beggars and not to others?”

How could we answer that the reasons were mostly arbitrary — wallet devoid of low denomination currency, mind preoccupied etc. Or that this minuscule dole was so inconsequential that it served more as a balm to our guilty souls than making any meaningful difference to their pathetic lives. We yearned to say that in future years, we were contemplating doing something to improve the lot of the disadvantaged. With a deep sigh, I answered: “You asked a really good question. Let me think about it some more and and get back with a proper answer.” I’m hopeful that the completion of this blog post (after gestating in the Drafts folder for the past 10 months) signals that we are ready to answer his question.

As I shuttled between Bangalore and San Francisco in 2010, it struck me that, besides software, there was at least one other thing common between the two cities – homeless people. There’s no dearth of homeless people in most Indian cities and Bangalore is no exception. What one tends to forget is that San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago, and many other American cities also suffer from this problem. The magnitude of the problem is different of course. While it needs to be stated that the problem of adult homeless people is very different (and relatively less troublesome if one deigns to compare), the attitude and reactions of the well-to-do-citizenry is pretty similar in both cases.

Still… San Francisco’s homelessness problem has always confounded me — especially during my 10 years living in the Bay Area. The Wikipedia article on San Francisco had the following interesting facts:

San Francisco ranks third of American cities in median household income with a 2007 value of $65,519. Median family income is $81,136, and San Francisco ranks 8th of major cities worldwide in the number of billionaires known to be living within city limits.

The city’s poverty rate is 11.8% and the number of families in poverty stands at 7.4%, both lower than the national average. The unemployment rate stands at 10.1% as of August 2009. Homelessness has been a chronic and controversial problem for San Francisco since the early 1980s. The city is believed to have the highest number of homeless inhabitants per capita of any major U.S. city.

Back in May 2010, I was in San Francisco for a week-long business trip. A lazy Sunday afternoon listening to Moonalice at Union Square seemed to provide a perfect start. I followed this up with a brisk walk, and spotting a Subway, hurried in to grab my usual favorite. As I contemplated the choice of bread, I heard a voice “I know folks don’t usually like to give money but could you buy me a sandwich?” A middle-aged homeless woman peered at me hopefully. After a two second pause, I nodded and indicated to the Subway employee. After I paid for her chicken-teriyaki and my veggie-delite sandwiches, I did what I normally do after these kind of encounters (in India or America) — beat a hasty retreat.

As I did more research on San Francisco’s homeless problem, I came across this rather encouraging article in WalletPop (key excerpts below)

In 2004, San Francisco launched an ambitious ten-year plan aimed at ending homelessness in the city by greatly expanding its social services and creating 3,000 permanent housing units as substitutes for shelters. Now at the six-year mark, San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, is claiming the city is more than halfway toward its goal, having thus far created almost 1,700 housing units. As a result, despite the recession, it’s managed to shrink its homeless population for the first time in 30 years.

Closer to home in Bangalore, here are a few sobering statistics gleaned from this Hindu article and this DNA article:

  • 17,000+ homeless people in Bangalore.
  • Per Supreme Court, there needs to be one homeless shelter for every lakh of people. For Bangalore’s 80 lakh population, this maps to 80 shelters.
  • Homeless women are exposed to regular sexual attacks and homeless men are at the mercy of goon and police atrocities.