Banyan: Providing shelter to the city’s homeless and mentally ill

Röhan Abraham

Chennai: When Amma passed away in December last year, a collective suspiration of anguish arose from the shelter for mentally ill homeless men in Doomingkuppam, near Santhome High Road, which is managed by The Banyan. The residents of the facility had lost a benefactress.

Similar scenes were witnessed in the sister facility in Mogappair which caters to women, and is run by the same organization. The women fasted for an entire day. The mournful mood was permeated by the fast paced music of Jayalailthaa’s early movies, which were sung as funereal hymns by the residents of the shelter in Doomingkuppam.

She was more than a benefactress. To the floridly delusional, she was the incarnation of divinity. The songs in which she danced and sang are religious paeans which are still sung in her remembrance.

“When Amma was buried, we could not help but heeding to the request of our men to visit her Memorial in Marina. Although it was terribly crowded, we managed to organize a trip, and it was very fulfilling for them,” said Mrinalini Ravi, who is the Assistant Director at the shelter in Doomingkuppam.

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The Banyan was founded in 1993 as a response to homeless women with mental health issues. It has diversified substantially over the years, spreading its canopy to cover other marginalized sections of society under its umbrage. It is aimed at providing comprehensive services from rescue to rehabilitation for mentally ill men and women who call the streets their home.

The 200 bed facility at Mogappair was the first to take off. The staff work zealously to rescue vulnerable women from the streets and subsequently offer them primary care, psychiatric services, rehabilitation through vocational training, and art therapy, which in turn helps them get back on their feet. It also undertakes reunions with families and follows up with financial assistance after a patient has been released.

Since the number of women who were rescued far outnumbered those who were released after being deemed well enough to tackle the cares of the world unassisted, they were forced to start another centre in Kovalam for long term patients.

‘Home Again’, which is a joint initiative undertaken by Banyan and the Canadian government has instituted a fund that takes care of the welfare of mentally deranged patients who have no scope for improvement.

As per this initiative, five patients are accommodated in a single house, and a personal assistant who is also trained in psychiatry and basic physiotherapy is stationed to chaperone the residents and abate their violent impulses. This ensures that they can live on their own with some amount of supervision.

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The facility in Doomingkuppam was set up after the Greater Chennai Corporation got in touch with Banyan following a 2010 ruling by the Supreme Court which declared that there should be at least one shelter for the homeless, in a population of one lakh.

The state has always maintained its role in protecting basic human rights, but the Court’s hand was forced due to government inaction which had resulted in the death of 90 people due to the cold in Delhi.

The government of Tamil Nadu wanted to revamp old government buildings such as schools and use them as shelters since it wouldn’t compound the tight budgetary ship that it was running to balance welfare payments with revenue. A blackboard with indecipherable stick figures forms the backdrop of the Director’s office. The men sleep on the first floor.


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Classrooms have been transformed into gymnasiums and vocational training centres. Training in candle making, wood carving, and car-wash services are imparted so that patients can be gainfully employed once they are released from the institution’s care. They are alerted about potential patients by people on the streets and volunteers who give them rescue calls.

Homelessness and mental illness are two very complicated conditions whose roots run deep, and are at times inextricable, especially when one is mired in poverty.

“Homelessness is a very common phenomenon among people with schizophrenia. In an average sample of homeless people, it is observed that at least 25-30 percent have severe mental illness,” said Mrinalini, who has been working at the facility in Doomingkuppam since its inception.

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In developing countries, more often than not homelessness occurs as a result of mental illness, but if you are on the streets and have to fend for yourself for basic sustenance while carefully navigating oneself to avoid sexual abuse, the stress is likely to lead one to schizophrenia. This is despite that fact    that it is clinically established that schizophrenia is a genetic condition.

“The lack of awareness and empathy is what makes mentally ill people in India especially vulnerable to abuse of all forms. Sometimes cultural factors also come to play. If you are from some random village in Madhya Pradesh, and haves symptoms of being mentally ill, people will say you are demented and that a bhoot has taken possession of your body. Often, attempts at exorcising lead to death. Witch hunts aren’t uncommon in the Indian heartland,” said Dr. Kishore Kumar, who is the Director of the shelter at Doomingkuppam.

According to a report published by the WHO, there is an 80% treatment gap in India apropos mental illness. When volunteers or people on the streets give them a call, two health workers are deputed to drive to the spot with a rescue kit comprising of fresh clothes and food. Since being homeless is not a pleasant experience, most agree to accompany them.

10 percent refuse to come, and require further cajoling while an equal number turn violent. The latter cases are tackled with the help of the police who transport them to the Institute of Mental Health in Ayanavaram, where they are administered tranquilizers.

“A man from a small village in Rajasthan was rescued recently. He was aimlessly wandering the streets of Chennai for the last 20 years. After we tracked down his brother, he got here within two days of receiving our call. It was an incredible scene because the brother was dumbfounded to be reunited with someone he had taken for dead,” chipped in Mrinalini, who further added that it is often miracles like these that make their work fulfilling.

There is nobody who is protected from mental illness, irrespective of the amount of wealth they possess.

A lady was recently rescued from Tambaram who said she was a retired Block Development Officer. She also claimed to be the author of a book that was published a few years back. She was sitting on the roadside, looking askance at the passing traffic, and making a meal out of the stones that lay on the footpath, when someone made a rescue call to Banyan.

When they verified the lady’s claims, they were found to be accurate. She had walked out of her house one day, never to return.

“With mentally ill people, old age homes are the best that can happen to them,” added Mrinalini. The Banyan also conducts outreach programmes and organizes Out-Patient (OP) camps at Loyola College and Stella Maris College.

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The facility also has a room dedicated to physical fitness with the gym being sponsored by BMW, the German automobile major, as a part of its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme.

Psychiatric medication has adverse impact on muscle tissue and often leads to their atrophy over time. This is why mentally ill individuals have an average life expectancy less than 25 years of the national average.

The camaraderie which the inmates develop is contagious, and is often initiated through bonding exercises like playing cricket, or taking a walk on the beach in the evenings. They are kept busy during the day by taking part in vocational training classes which are voluntary. In a classroom across the courtyard, a few men are sitting slouched over their work.

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Banyan plans to sell the heart-shaped candles that he men manufacture in colleges across the city as a part of spreading love on Valentine’s Day.

When it comes to mental illness, recovery is a very personal concept. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and mental retardation-with-epilepsy account for majority of the cases. It is very rarely that depression leads to homelessness.

Mental illness is covered under the central government’s ‘Disability Benefit’ scheme whereby a pension of Rs.1500 per month is reimbursed to affected individuals.

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Usually, natural calamities render homeless, a lot of people who were on the fringes of society. This often pushes them under and they are prone to mental illness. “Fortunately, we were insulated from the catastrophic effect of the 2015 flood, as well as Cyclone Vardah, “ Mrinalini said.

There are currently 32 men in the facility at Doomingkuppam. On an average, they receive three rescue calls. It is only very rarely that people with criminal history end up at the shelter. A young man from a village in Maharashtra was beaten up for eve teasing and ended up in prison. Since then, he has been on the move, and it was only perchance that he was rescued from the streets after catching the eye of an alert volunteer.

Many homeless men are victims of sexual assault. Sexuality among those suffering from mental illness is not much talked about and is considered taboo.

“On the streets, many women indulge in sexual favours in return for food or clothing. But what often goes under the radar is the fact that a lot of men also undergo sexual abuse, sometimes at the hands of other men, and rarely, even by women. Most of our men claim to have been forcefully raped when on the streets. However, rape will not cause schizophrenia, Schizophrenia has complicated origins,” said Mrinalini.

In the shelter, many of the rescued men engage in homosexual relationships. Condoms are supplied in the rooms upstairs where they stay in dormitories. Every time a client comes in, he is put through a battery of tests, including for TB, HIV, and other communicable diseases, so as to not affect the others.

Those who exhibit signs of depression are kept on suicide watch. CCTV cameras are installed on the ground floor, but not upstairs where the men live, since it would be violate their privacy.

Vocational training is designed to be a distraction from the humdrum lives that they lead, and acts as a counterbalance to suicidal tendencies.

“We have started a professional car wash service where our men visit apartment building at around six in the morning before people leave for work. They do a thorough job and my husband has helped in sourcing the necessary equipment including jet sprays, and vacuum machines. Some of the men are even employed in his company, and we remunerate them by putting money in the bank accounts that we started in their names,” Mrinalini said, highlighting the importance of gainful employment to complete rehabilitation.

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Ajay originally hails from Nagpur. He works in the car-wash service that Banyan provides for a fee to clients.

However, when asked about his bank account, Ajay, who works in the car-wash unit, said that he had neither a bank account, nor any money.

Banyan receives a fifth of its funding from the government and the rest is collected from corporates. It also receives funding from abroad but the shelter in question is yet to receive foreign funds.

The inmates are also highly politically inclined, and their daily routine involves reading the newspaper and engaging in a discussion on the day’s happenings.

The men seem to be supremely confused about the political scene. You have one CM for breakfast, another for lunch, and President’s Rule by dinnertime.

“The men seem to be supremely confused about the political scene. You have one CM for breakfast, another for lunch, and President’s Rule by dinnertime,” quipped Vijay Dhole, who is a student of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), which sends students enrolled in their social work course on field work to the Banyan.

The late J. Jayalalithaa has a lot of admirers in the men since it was during her tenure that an Aadhar camp was organized here, as was their registration for Voter ID cards.

“Amma was amazingly perceptive to the importance of mental health and the gap in treatment that existed in the state. The land for the Government Mental Hospital was donated by her government,” said Dr. Kishore Kumar.

Most patients are religiously inclined, and the staff cater to their wishes by celebrating all religious festivals with great pomp and fanfare.
Most patients are religiously inclined, and the staff cater to their wishes by celebrating all religious festivals with great pomp and fanfare.

Inside the confines of the facility, the inmates, irrespective of their educational achievements, live in a time warp. A doctor who left home in 1987 has been living at the centre since 2013. He was one of the first to be institutionalized after the Banyan opened its doors to the homeless at its Doomingkuppam centre.

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman broke up!

“Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman broke up, “said the doctor-turned-patient in abject wonderment. He stares blankly at the wall littered with hieroglyphics,the imperceptible scribble of which is the calligraphy of those lost in unreality. News from the outside world percolates very slowly. Tom Cruise has hence married, and also been divorced.

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Shehnaz Edakandi and her colleague Shorin Ashimray from TISS have spent a couple of months in Chennai as a part of the TISS-Banyan initiative to effectively rehabilitate the lives of those plagued by mental illness. It is under their guidance that the men are working at making enough heart shaped candles to spread love, come Valentine’s Day.

Through societal outreach and awareness programmes, Banyan hopes to overcome the physical and social barriers that have been erected that stonewall the mentally challenged from asserting their rights in public spaces.

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