No place to call home for quite a few in Madurai

15 people identified in a few hours during a recent inspection

On Monday, during a late night inspection around the city with a few other officials, Collector S. Nagarajan identified 15 mentally ill and homeless people within a few hours’ time and got them admitted at the Emergency Care and Rehabilitation Centre at Periyakulam in Theni district.

The incident has brought into focus the not-easily-noticeable, yet significant, increase in the number of destitute and mentally ill persons living on the streets and the inadequacies on the part of government and civil society in addressing this problem.

For instance, a survey by a group of college students and a non-governmental organisation (NGO) Idhayam Trust in February this year at 14 public places identified 123 elderly homeless people, of whom 19 were mentally ill. “We were shocked that we could find so many people in a matter of few hours during daytime,” said G.R. Sivakumar, Director of the NGO.

In April, at least four deaths of elderly homeless people were reported in the city in two to three days, a person belonging to an NGO involved by the police in handling dead bodies in such cases said.

V. P. Manikandan, a marketing executive and an activist involved in the rescue of abandoned elders, said the present mechanism and infrastructure available were grossly inadequate to handle a problem of this magnitude. “To begin with, there is no clarity on who is responsible. If I notice a person and want to help, there is no single helpline available for me to contact. If I approach the police, they will direct me to Social Welfare department, who will, in turn, direct me to Government Rajaji Hospital or a home, who will not be ready to accept the person,” he said.

According to the district administration’s website, the Social Welfare department funds three homes run by NGOs for senior citizens. However, Mr. Manikandan alleged that the three homes were usually unwilling to accept abandoned elders, particularly if they were ill.

Similar situation prevails in the 12 Shelters for Urban Homeless Poor (SUHP) run by NGOs with financial support from Madurai Corporation. “Interestingly, those running the homes demand identity cards from the destitute people for admitting them, which is unreasonable,” Mr. Manikandan said.

Those running these homes, on the other hand, allege inadequate support from the government. A person running one of the SUHP said that the fund provided by Madurai Corporation was insufficient to maintain the home. “Our homes are intended for short stays. However, people end up staying for a long period. We do not have the resources to look after persons who are ill,” he said.

Highlighting the need for more shelters with government support, R. Balagurusamy, Chief Medical Officer, Nethravathi Pain and Palliative Care Centre, which takes care of terminally ill elderly persons, stressed that regulatory mechanisms and clarity on processes to be followed were equally needed.

“The government must inspect all the homes to check if they have adequate infrastructure and, importantly, determine which type of persons can be sent to which home,” he said. “Also, those in old age homes must have access to basic healthcare so that they do not become terminally ill, as palliative or hospice centres are very few,” he said. Mr. Manikandan said the most difficult to handle were destitute persons who were mentally ill. “The home run by M.S. Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation almost always runs to full capacity. In GRH, they do not admit them for treatment if there are no persons to accompany the patients,” he said.

Sexual abuse

Acknowledging the complexities involved in the issue, Mr. Nagarajan said gradual yet significant steps were being taken by the government to address the problem. He said that the present focus of the district administration was on rescuing mentally ill persons, mainly women, who were most vulnerable and often subjected to sexual abuse.

“For instance, one of the women we rescued on Monday night is found to be HIV-positive. She has been taken to the Anti-Retroviral therapy (ART) Centre in Theni for treatment,” he said. “We have five ECRCs in the State now – in Theni, Tiruppur, Villupuram, Tiruvannamalai and Vellore districts. Each has a capacity of 50 beds and three psychiatrists. The government plans to set up such centres in all districts,” he added.

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