By Raisa Wickrematunge
The sun slants over Vihara Maha Devi Park. It is 2 o’clock, Wednesday afternoon, the height of the heat. A few families picnic. It is an idyllic scene, until you squint your eyes. Lying under the trees, you spot them, covered in threadbare quilts, old rags and toweling. The homeless.
Many might fancy a stroll through the park on a lazy afternoon. But these people make this place their home — until 7 o clock, that is, when everyone must leave. Many of them are from out of Colombo, and have travelled long distances to get here. Clustered under the trees, it is clear that these unfortunate people have no place to go.
It was not always so. Idin Gunasekara, for instance, was a government servant in Polonnaruwa. When he retired, he discovered that he had not received a pension. Unable to support himself and his family of seven, he made the long commute to Colombo, in order to make his case in the city.
Jayaratne was a construction worker in Kurunegala. “There are no jobs for people like us now,” he said. Jayaratne spends his nights in a nearby shop.
Then there are those like R. Premachandra, who left home with his sister following a family feud. Or Piyadasa, an orphan from Matara, homeless for six years. “I can’t find a job, because I’ve injured my legs,” he said. These people spend their days, rain or shine, in the park. At night, they seek shelter in temples, mosques or churches. Outside one such mosque is Indra Kanthi, who has been living on the streets since she was a child. Having lost her mother at a young age, the family of six lived near the Delkandha junction. She is too feeble to push a cart now, and so lost her street-cleaning job. She has also lost sight in one eye.
A common echo amongst all those we encountered was, “Aiyo, please don’t tell the police.” Without exception, all the homeless fear the police. This, as they explained, is because many of them have been rounded up, hauled into courts, incarcerated, or simply sent elsewhere, to places like Ridhigama. Then there’s the problem of food. “I can’t even afford the Rs. 100 needed to buy a lunch packet. I have lost all my money,” said Mohommed plaintively. Many of those living in the park depend on the largesse of a few sellers who pass out free lunch packets.
Apparently, however, Mohommed claims that some of these packets are spiked with drugs, putting the poverty-stricken at risk. The problems faced by the country’s homeless are real enough. Yet, many of these people have slipped through the cracks in the system. Perhaps this is because the action taken against them is mostly punitive.
Town-planner and President of Sevanatha (an organisation dealing with urban poverty) K.A. Jayaratne said that homelessness was not a major problem per se. Instead, he said most street-dwellers did have homes of some sort of shacks or makeshift canvas tents. He pointed to lack of ownership of these unauthorised constructions as a major contributing factor. “Some of these people are living in areas unsuitable for human habitation. Alternative land should be given to them, and they should have ownership,” Jayaratne said. He added that loss of livelihood was a devastating blow which could contribute to poverty.
Case in point — the evicted street-hawkers in Pettah. Yet Jayaratne downplayed this, saying that most of the hawkers had homes elsewhere. “Maybe a few of them were living with their wives and children on the streets. But only a small amount,” Jayaratne said. What about those people who, in the run up to glittering events like IIFA, were unceremoniously evicted from their homes? “It was only in Slave Island that they removed the slums,” Jayaratne said.
He added, “I have no information whether any alternative homes were provided for them.” On Monday, Chairman of the Housing Development Authority, Jayantha Samaraweera said 65,000 were homeless in the city. Yet the Authority itself said the numbers were misleading. Employee Gamini Vithane said that the figures referred to people who had shacks or temporary housing. “I did the survey in Colombo. There are maybe 50-100 who are homeless, living in places like Vihara Maha Devi Park. But there is no homelessness as such in Sri Lanka,” Vithane said.
However what the authorities seem to have forgotten is that since these constructions are temporary and illegal, they can be razed to the ground whenever the government pleases. As such, these people too are living on a razor’s-edge, living in makeshift shelters. Meanwhile, the authorities will simply turn a blind eye to avoid having to deal with the problem. Where is the definitive solution? In addition, most were very eager to pass the buck on to someone else. “I don’t have any information on that,” said Secretary to the Social Services Ministry, Yamuna Chitrangani.
The police echoed this sentiment. “We don’t have any details,” said Colombo Municipal Council Commissioner Badrani Jayawardena. General Manager of the Housing Development Authority, Mr. Palansooriya did not respond to an emailed query (on his request) despite promising to do so. In short, everyone was either very busy or simply had no information. Unfortunately, a maze of red tape fails to obscure the severity of the problem. As evidenced by one short walk, this is one issue which cannot, and indeed should not, be glossed over.