The Shelter for Urban Homeless Women with Psychosocial disabilities.

Working in the community through the Outreach Programme, the Iswar Sankalpa team realized that homeless women with psychosocial disabilities who live and reside on

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the streets are very vulnerable to different kinds of abuses, and the community care model leaves them at risk of physical and sexual violence on the streets.

The Shelter for the Urban Homeless Women with Psychosocial disabilities – Project Sarbari, was founded on April 2010 in collaboration with the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. It was propelled into being based on the realisation that homeless women with psychosocial disabilities required a safe and secure place to reside for intervention to be done effectively and comprehensively.

Since its inception, Sarbari has extended shelter to 259 homeless women with psychosocial disabilities. Sarbari acts as an open shelter where the women can stay on their own free will and has a maximum capacity of 80 residents at any point of time.

The Shelter intervention focuses on medical as well as psychosocial methods. Over the past couple of years, Sarbari has been putting in great efforts towards the psychosocial habilitation of these individuals and mainstream them successfully in the society. Much emphasis has been laid on the different approaches towards the habilitation of these women in the shelter home, and based on these Sarbari is attempting to develop and maintain a wholesome model for the habilitation.


The community care model of the Outreach programme is a unique way of reaching out to the hitherto neglected population of homeless persons with psychosocial disabilities – it involved engaging the very community where these people had made their homes along with government health and welfare departments and law enforcement agencies.

Most people on the streets would keep away from the homeless persons with psychosocial disabilities because of their appearance – dirty and dishevelled, matted hair and in some cases, infections on the skin. However with Iswar Sankalpa’s intervention, slowly and steadily these persons start looking after their basic hygiene needs, caring for their appearance, slowly interacting with the community people and engaging in some rehabilitative tasks.

Though extremely happy with this turn of events, the IS team soon started realising that the homeless women with psychosocial disabilities – now having started to look presentable and on the path to well-being, started attracting unwanted male attention, who earlier stayed away from them out of fear. These women now started appealing to the anti-social male elements who did not hesitate to force themselves through physical and sexual violence and abuse.

The Supreme Court order dated 10 February 2010 and 05 May 2012 also focuses on directing State Governments and Union Territories to have night shelters in the ratio of 1 night shelter for per 1 lakh of the population in cities who have a population of more than 5 lakhs.

It was due to the development of these circumstances that Project Sarbari was born.

As Iswar Sankalpa believes in partnering with the government in all its’ programmes, we approached the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) with the need to have a space which can serve as a shelter for homeless women with psychosocial disabilities in the metropolis of Kolkata. The KMC extended their full cooperation and provided the organisation with space at 19B, Chetla Hat Road, Kolkata – 700027.

The Shelter for Urban Homeless Women with Psychosocial Disabilities was formally inaugurated on 25th April, 2010 by the then Mayor Shri Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya who was accompanied by Shri Banibrata Basu, then Joint Commissioner of Police, eminent artists Shri Ramananda Bandyopadhyay actress Koel Mullick and other dignitaries.


The first step is identification of a homeless woman with psychosocial disability in need for shelter and intervention. There are various sources of referrals for this –

– The woman maybe identified and referred by the Outreach Program

– The woman maybe identified ad referred through the Kolkata Police

– The woman maybe identified and referred by other NGOs and organisations

In case of a referral from the Outreach team, it is the team who starts building a relationship with the woman and starts negotiating with her about possible care and intervention options. Consequently, if she agrees to come to the shelter, the team completes lodges a general diary entry with the local police station before bringing them to the shelter. This officially helps to put the so far unknown woman into the system in case any missing persons report is filed by relatives and loved ones. The Shelter team follows a similar process when the referrals are from other organisations.

In case of referrals from the Kolkata Police, the police already maintain an official report on the woman before she is brought to the shelter with her cooperation.

Post identification and an entry into the Shelter programme, the primary emphasis is placed on their basic hygiene requirements, physical and mental health care and symptom reduction. The woman undergoes an overall health check-up in order to be able to streamline the intervention as per the need of the client.

The Shelter intervention focuses on a framework which help in basic life skills building, cognitive enhancement, more functionality in day-to-day living and fostering independent living. The structure of intervention addresses the following aspects –

  • Living Skills: Maintaining personal hygiene and physical care, and self help skills which helps the person in day to day living
  • Communication Skills: Emphasis on the right kind of verbal and nonverbal (especially emotional) expression and interaction
  • Social Skills: Emphasis on conducting oneself in a socially appropriate manner and instilling small social responsibilities like buying vegetables from the local market, handling one’s own money etc.
  • Prevocational Skills: Recreational activities which creatively engage a person like music, dance, and art and also have therapeutic value.
  • Vocational Skills: Depending on the individual aptitudes, interests and abilities of the person, training is imparted through activities which could meaningfully engage the person and also be a possible future source of revenue for them.
  • Service Oriented Skills: After their other skills are a little improved, they are encouraged to take upon service oriented trainings and job placements for their livelihood.

These systematized habilitative programmes aim at enabling within each woman at Sarbari, a greater sense of overall well-being and a possible means for an eventual sustainable future and to live a life of dignity.

The Focus on Vocational Activities and Supportive Employment:

Psychosocial disability presents substantial challenges in vocational habilitation and employment. Limitations in the nature of cognitive and functional abilities are raised as concerns towards the vocational habilitation of persons with psychosocial disabilities ranging from meeting deadlines, prioritizing tasks, retaining stamina, combating drowsiness due to medications, communicating and interacting with others, reading social cues, sustaining concentration, shortened attention span, easy distraction, trouble remembering verbal directions, understanding and interpreting criticism and low self esteem, knowing areas of improvement and also finally, coping with unexpected changes in work, such as changes in the rules, job duties, supervisors or co-workers.

Nonetheless, there is no denying that work is important both in maintaining mental health and in promoting the recovery of those who have experienced psychosocial disabilities. Enabling people to retain or gain employment has a profound effect on more life domains than almost any other medical or social intervention. Employment has many advantages for people. Besides earning an income, work provides opportunities for social interaction, a meaningful way of structuring and occupying time, enjoyable activity and involvement, and a sense of personal achievement. Employment is challenging, yet when successful, encourages people to maintain their mental health. The confidence developed from employment promotes recovery. Economic empowerment increases their self-belief, self-esteem and self confidence, which in turn helps them to recover. Transforming these individuals into performing members of the society is only truly possible if they can earn their livelihood and live with self respect.

Sarbari’s efforts and experiences for mainstreaming these women back into society cannot be considered without its failures and challenges, but the efforts may be viewed as an approach towards the overall well-being of these women together with a step towards gaining the right to employment as well.

The Way Ahead

The Shelter has started expanding the scope of work by emphasizing on providing entitlements to the residents of the Shelter. We have been able to open bank accounts of several women residents, as well as begun the process for application of the Unique Identity Card, i.e., the Aadhar card. The provision of these entitlements aim at restoring back to these women, their identities, and thus their basic rights of citizenship and existence.

The women also often in the course of their stay in the shelter are able to share their actual names and the details of their family members and addresses. The Shelter team works in partnership with the Restoration team who often work with the support and inputs of the Kolkata Police to locate the clients’ families. The clients are then, post a final Fit for Restoration check up re-united with their families and loved ones, often after many, many years.

However, there are clients’ for who we cannot locate their homes due to language barriers or lack of information. There are also clients’ who do not want to go back to what was their home, and/or the families refuse to take any responsibility for them and act as caregivers. For such persons, possibilities of long-stay home, sustained regular employment providing economic independence needs to be explored further and in greater detail.


The following figures give a gist of the activities and reach of the Shelter programme–
Total number of homeless women with psychosocial disabilities catered to from April 2010 till September 2014:

Number of new entries in 2010 54
Number of new entries in 2011 56
Number of new entries in 2012 88
Number of new entries in 2013 74
Number of new entries in 2014 45
Total Number of Individuals 306
  • Total exits from Shelter from April 2010 till September 2014:
Total exits in 2010


Total exits in 2011


Total exits in 2012


Total exits in 2013


Total exits in 2014


No. of women residents continuing from March 2012 60
No. of new women residents in the past one year(April 2014 to September 2014) 34
Total no. of women residents in the past one year 98
  • Vocational activities and Supportive Employment:

Absolute numbers

Receiving External Training –


Ayah training


Beautician course






Housekeeping in a Five Star Hotel


Resettled in Community


Resettled from Shelter:
Ayah work at hospital


Domestic help


Housekeeping Staff


Support Staff at IS


Resettled after restoration:
Working at tea garden as cleaner


Working as labour


Jewellery Making


House Maid


Works in a parlour as a beautician


Biri Maker


Flower garland making


Ayah work


Participating in Vocational Therapy


Earning 50-149


Earning 150-499


Earning 500+


  • Monthly stipend of Rs 300/Rs 500 depending on the task responsibility taken up by the client given to 15 clients.
  • Involvement in shelter activities (cooking, cleaning, vocational activities, different therapy sessions and so on);

– Regular involvement is between 15-20 days per month

– Irregular involvement is less than 15 days per month






The Shelter started as a solution to the problems faced while working with homeless women with psychosocial disabilities as part of the Outreach programme. However, at the Shelter too, with growth expansion of strategies of intervention and experience, there are some daunting challenges which need to be resolved in order to better serve this population, and empower them to live a life with dignity-

  • Physical health status of the residents:
    Over the past year, there were a few incidents of deteriorating general health amongst the residents, and hence greater focus is now given to the physical health aspect of the women to ensure early detection and intervention. Additionally, a dietician has been consulted, and diet charts have been prepared for the residents based on their physical condition (General, Diabetic, and Renal diets).
  • Influx/Out flux dilemma:
    Due to the restoration, repatriation and resettlement process, there is a constant dynamic flow of residents within the shelter. This often has a psychological impact on the remaining residents, who not only experience the loss of their friends and roommates, but also must resign themselves to the fact that they themselves are not going home. Additionally, many who are restored are often the more functional individuals in the shelter. Thus, there is often a instability in the levels of the general activity at the shelter from time to time, since it takes some time to prepare new women for the various shelter activities. To combat this, particular emphasis is given on newer residents’ skill and capacity building, so that when the old and functional individuals leave the shelter the newer women can more easily fill in their positions.
  • Resettlement, repatriation and restoration issues of certain residents:
    A challenge which still remains is that of how to deal with women whose families could not be traced or are not re-accepted back into their families, and whose chances of resettlement are minimal. There are also certain difficulties in restoring those clients who have come here all the way from Bangladesh. There are also quite a number of elderly women, who are also a challenge as the shelter is not fully equipped for handling geriatric issues. A more permanent solution for these select groups of women needs to be sought, and so we have now began the conceptualising of the eventual creation of a long stay home.