Bringing dignity to Mumbai’s homeless

Host stories

Ben Fraser

24 March 2015

It’s easy for us to discount the homeless – we do it every day. We dismiss their situation as a fault of their own – because of drug abuse or crime, or for other reasons. However, Abhishek, founder of Alternative Realities in Mumbai, manages to see past these stereotypes (having been homeless himself for a while). Instead, he sees the huge contribution that the homeless make to the city. Numbering around 150,000, they are the people whom others ignore (but would notice if they were gone). As a result, he fights for them to be treated with dignity by society, and is working on ways to improve their lives.

When visiting the Mahim neighbourhood’s homeless community of basket weavers (they do not live in a slum but on the streets, with perhaps a tarpaulin for cover), it’s obvious how much love they have for Abhishek. Every other person calls over to greet him and wants to show him their work. This love is clearly reciprocated, when he says: “Homeless people are so colourful, they are living with their families and they are entrepreneurs. They are responding to the demands of the city and producing lovely wicker baskets.” This community would never beg; their dignity is intact, but society doesn’t treat them in a dignified way. Abhishek knows how much they can teach us and he recognises the role that he and others can play: “You do not have to be Mother Theresa. You can make money and help society, but rather than blaming other people, come and join hands and see the change that happens”.

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It’s this sort of contribution that Abhishek wants to focus on. What makes him such an impressive community leader is his recognition of the role played by everyone in making the city work. He does not look to bash the rich: they provide jobs and investment. But he is fighting to ensure that the homeless don’t slide any further down the social scale. For Abhishek, it’s the nurturing of everyone’s role that will do much to help in the city’s development. Abhishek is determined that society working together is key to improving the urban situation. He doesn’t understand why everyone avoids the issue. Society and the government want clean streets, and the homeless don’t want to live on the streets, so why the gap between the interested parties? Why not get together to solve the issue? He identifies homeless communities, organises them into groups, appoints a leader and teaches them how to communicate their issues. Watching them begin to interact with the police, authorities and other communities, to get their ideas across in a logical way, makes him proud.

Abhishek focuses on three tiers to move the homeless out of poverty: education, nutrition and support groups. For example, education is simply about getting children interested in reading and writing so that they don’t drop out of school or vocational job training. It also involves counselling, because, sadly, most of the children “don’t know what a house is” and will struggle to stay indoors during the training period. He is optimistic about success, but realistic. He’s confident that it’s possible to improve the economic situation, but knows that it requires a systematic effort. He notes the difference between the poor in India compared to the West. He’s adamant that they are humble, hard-working people who can’t afford to be involved in drugs, crime or prostitution. People who simply don’t know how to extricate themselves from their situation. He is excited that 12 homeless shelters have been promised for Mumbai, thanks to pressure from Alternative Realities.

This is why he enjoys working with Leaders’ Quest. The Pow-Wow gave him a first glimpse of leaders cutting across different sectors to explore social issues that would otherwise lack attention. LQ is doing the amazing job of “bridging the huge gap between the classes and the masses”, he says. It’s inspiring for him to see what LQ is trying to do: pushing the boundaries, challenging influential leaders to appreciate issues. Making them sit on the pavements and understand the lives of the marginalised. He has become great friends with LQ and values the open space it has created to discuss ideas.

Abhishek is an inspiring leader, not just because of his passion, but because of the respect and appreciation he has for the homeless. He tries to see the world from their perspective. I found that, sitting on the pavement with him, the mad race of life going on around me stopped for a moment and I forgot to focus on the people rushing past, the cars beeping, the trains rolling by. There was, strangely, some peace to be had. Abhishek’s optimism is truly infectious.