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Cities teem with homeless, vulnerable people

[Pakistan] Lack of HIV testing for blood transfusion.
There are hundreds of thousands of homeless people in Lahore today (Pakistan Society)

Javed Ahmed, 27, looks out dreamily at the unexpected rain, which temporarily broke the blistering heat of May in Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province, where temperatures of 42 or 43 degrees have persisted for several days.

As he gazes out, Javed puffs on a cigarette butt and swigs tea from a cup. But he is not, like many others in the city, sitting atop a breezy roof or terrace.

Javed is among the city's estimated 200,000 homeless people and today he is sitting beneath a bridge in the older part of the city, not far from the towering Minar-e-Pakistan, the structure that marks the birth of Pakistan.

"I have lived on the streets for two or three years now. This cigarette I begged from a passerby and the cup of tea was given to me by a kind street café owner, from the dregs left in the pot after some customers had left," Javed said.

Like many other homeless people, Javed depends on occasional work as a labourer and the equally occasional kindness of a food stall owner or customer, to survive.

There are no official figures on the number of homeless people in the city. Estimates can be difficult, because each year, in summer, the number of people sleeping in open spaces rises markedly, many finding escape from the oppressive heat in often cramped houses.

The homeless are classified as those who sleep outdoors throughout the year.

In a petition moved before the Lahore High Court in 2005 seeking protection for homeless people, advocate Mohammad Tahir put the figure for such persons in Lahore at closer to 500,000.

Social activist Mumtaz Haider, who has in the past worked with several charitable groups and is now setting up his own organisation, said many homeless people had come to Lahore in search of work. Unable to find work, many end up on the streets and are too ashamed to return home.

According to the Nai Zindagi (New Life) organization, which runs the Smile Project to take care of homeless youth on the street, at least 5,000 persons aged under 18 live on the street.

A nationwide problem


''These millions of homeless people face many problems.''

The figure for homeless people is believed to be higher in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city with a population of over 14 million inhabitants. Karachi acts as a magnet for people seeking jobs across the country, and the regular influx of new migrants has been a factor in a homeless population now estimated to have reached the 500,000 mark.

Moreover, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), there have also been reports of growing homelessness in smaller cities, such as Faisalabad, Multan and Rawalpindi in the Punjab and Quetta, the provincial capital of southwestern Balochistan province.

The acute shortage of urban housing is contributing to the problem as there are few vacant buildings or places to go even if the homeless had some income, observers say.

According to the Pakistan government's Economic Survey for 2005-2006, there is a current backlog of 6.19 million housing units. The survey says that to address the current backlog over the coming 20 years, house building needs to be increased to 500,000 units annually.

This is no easy task in a situation where urban land prices have soared and government-housing policies have failed to meet people’s needs over many years.

"These millions of homeless people face many problems. One of them is that they cannot even acquire a National Identity Card - necessary to vote and indeed to have an identity - as they have no address and thus do not qualify for it," I A Rehman, HRCP’s director, said.

Vulnerable

Homeless people also face many other threats. In 2005, a man whom police later described as a psychopath killed 14 homeless people over several months that year by using a stone or brick to bludgeon their heads as they slept on footpaths.

Other attacks on homeless people have also been reported, in several cases by petty criminals seeking to steal the small amounts of cash some may carry on them.

Homeless people are also vulnerable to addiction - with drugs of many kinds easily available on the streets. "I inject heroin to help me go to sleep, and to stave off pangs of hunger," Yaqoob, a young pavement sleeper said in the area surrounding Lahore’s Data Darbar shrine. He refused to give his full name.

Other homeless people, including Naeemuddin, 40 and Muhammad Omar, 36, said pushers often tried to sell drugs to them - and Yaqoob, an educated but jobless young man from Bahawalpur in the southern Punjab, had "resisted for many months" before falling victim.

"Loneliness is also a factor. We give each other company, but it is hard to live away from home amidst strangers," said Naeemuddin.

Life on the streets is tough. But for many millions of homeless people, there is no other choice - and each evening brings a search for a new place to spread out their scanty belongings and prepare to spend another long, lonely and sometimes dangerous night.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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