Twelve year-old Maruf (not his real name) came to Karwan Bazaar at the age of only seven. He can now only name the district he came from, Noakhali. Since then, he has been sleeping in open spaces in front of different shops and offices in the Karwan Bazaar area. With the passage of time, he came to know snatchers in the area and ended up becoming a member of a snatcher group that includes around 20 other boys.
"We snatch gold chains, mobile phones and earrings from people and flee. We stay in a group and if someone says something to us, we attack," said Maruf sitting in the office room of Government Shelter Centre in Mirpur-1.
One night last month, while taking drugs with other boys sitting on the Karwan Bazaar foot over bridge, the police arrested him. The other boys fled the scene. Finally, he ended up in the government shelter center.
Like Maruf, more or less 70 vagrants, juvenile delinquents and down-and-out people come to Dhaka's largest government shelter centre every month. The government established the facility in 1977 on a 0.52-acre land in Mirpur to shelter bagmen and vagrants and to improve their life. However, life in the shelter centre now is like a prison for its residents because of inadequate facilities.
According to the Department of Social Service, 200 people can live in the shelter centre at a time. There is a U-shaped building to accommodate the residents. The building has become so dilapidated that in 1995 the Department of Public Works declared the building risky.
Later, the authorities made room for the male residents on the third floor of the three-story administrative building. In two rooms, some twenty people can stay at a time now.
But a problem arises when they need to keep female residents. The authorities built a two-room tin-shed building in 2018 to accommodate female residents.
On June 26, there were five female residents and 11 male residents. Of the five female residents: one is an adult woman and the other four are girls. Of the four girls; two of them are mentally challenged and the other two fled home. Most of the male are street children – some are involved in criminal activities and some are innocent.
The existing accommodation is dangerous too for the residents of the shelter center; especially for the children because people from different backgrounds come and live together in the centre.
"Drug peddlers, sex workers, innocent victims, shelterless children; people irrespective of their age live at the same place," said Nasrin Khan, manager of the centre, adding that the center is also used as a reception center for the shelterless and vagrants.
The accommodation crisis increases manifold when foreign dignitaries come to Bangladesh. The law enforcement agencies become more active in picking up the shelterless from the street and sending them to the shelter center.
Ten-year-old Salma (not her real name) came to the shelter center after losing her way en route to her maternal aunt's in Munshiganj. She started from Cox's Bazaar and ended up in the Mirpur area and wandered on the streets. The Pallabi police rescued her and sent her to the government center.
"The shelter authorities said they have already contacted Salma's family and they will come to take her away," said Nasrin. However, this little girl has to stay with mentally ill residents in the same room.
Saidur Rahman, the deputy assistant director of the shelter centre said that the shelter centre is not habitable for residents.
"This shelter center has been neglected for a long time," said Saidur Rahman.
The centre is riddled with problems
There is no manpower in the shelter center for cooking food for the residents. As a result, the children have to do the risky job of cooking for at least 15 residents three times a day. Maruf has been in the shelter center for a month and he has cooked for the residents.
Nasrin, who was transferred to the centre as its chief six months ago, said that 85% of people who came here are mentally ill.
"There is no professional psychosocial counsellor post, there is an assistant manager cum caseworker post whose task also includes counselling residents. But the post is vacant," said Nasrin.
According to the Vagrants and Shelterless Persons Act 2011, a professional vagrant will be kept no more than two years in custody. The authorities will arrange for their training so that they can return to a normal life.
Out of four approved posts, two trade instructors give hands-on training on embroidery and sewing. However, the training has been stopped since March last year in the wake of the government shutdown.
Nasrin said that when they find someone who has gone missing, they send them back to their family instantly. "But for vagrants with criminal records, despite getting their address, we do not release them instantly because if we release them, they will go to the streets once again."
There is a physical exercise teacher. However, all residents have little scope to take part in physical exercise daily.
"The boundary is fenced with corrugated iron sheets. We have to decide who gets to do physical exercise because someone can flee," said Nasrin.
Nasrin said that the centre is also suffering from lack of manpower. There are 30 approved posts for the centre but the centre is running with only 11 personnel.
"There are supposed to be 10 warders and one head guard in the centre. The head guard is attached to the Ministry of Social Welfare. There is no warder in the centre," said Nasrin.
The expense per resident is 3,500 monthly. Tk2,500 for food and fuel. The rest of the Tk1,000 includes treatment, clothing, education and training. Nasrin said this amount is insufficient.
Why so many shelterless remain on the streets
Many homeless people are visible on the streets but they cannot come to the shelter centre because there are legal issues. The shelter centre officials said that vagrants, as well as homeless people, cannot come to the shelter unless it has been approved by a magistrate.
"It is the responsibility of the police to send the rootless and vagrants to the shelters. The police will take the magistrate's written permission about sending them to five other shelter centres across the country," said Nasrin.
As a part of the process, the police have to file a general diary in the police station after rescuing homeless people and arresting vagrants. After the general diary, the magistrate gives an order on them. Then they bring them to the shelter centre.
"Our responsibility starts with receiving the rescued person from the police," said Nasrin. "Legally, we cannot bring someone from the street to the shelter centre directly."
According to the Vagrants and Shelterless Persons Act 2011, a shelterless person is a person who does not have a place to live in and food for living on. On the other hand, vagrants are those who wander on the streets and bother people by begging.
"Sometimes there are incidents involving petty offences, like stealing something. The police do not file a case because they will have to investigate the matter and they have to present in court," said Nasrin "To avoid such hassles, they file a general diary and send them to our shelter centre."
She said that they can reach the families of around 30 per cent while the rest of them have to be sent to the permanent shelter centre.
"The police are aware of who is a professional snatcher, drug peddler or sex worker; and so are we. But they came legally, so we have nothing to do," said Nasrin.