Homelessness rising as economic collapse draws closer

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As darkness begins to rule the city and parents are rushing back home with their children from Viharamahadevi Park, Ruwani, a 28-year-old mother slowly settled herself on the pavement under a street lamp with her 10-month-old baby and other belongings and started breastfeeding her infant. 

Ruwani is one of the dozens who, over the past few months, have lost a roof above their heads due to deteriorating economic situation in the country which had sent lower income families from the frying pan into the fire and made the poor poorer.

She, with much reluctance, confided that she and her infant started living on the streets about three months ago as she and her husband no longer could afford paying rent to where they used to live.

 “My husband used to work as a helper at construction sites for local masons for a daily wage. When cement and all the main raw materials that is used in construction sites stated to increase prices, many tenders and projects that they got to build houses were cancelled. He tried to find some other work as a helper yet there weren’t many job opportunities left for daily wage earners and even I couldn’t help him because I have to take care of the baby. We used to pay Rs 1,800 weekly for our house where we rented at Enderamulla. After a few weeks of being unable to pay rent, the owners chased us away. Now we have been living on the streets for nearly three months. Many people who pass by are kind enough to give us a packet of rice even during these difficult times,” she added.

Stranded in Colombo

Weerasooriya and Kumari are two middle-aged women that we met near the entrance of Fort Railway Station. They told us they were there until the next bus to Anuradhapura leaves Pettah. And since there is no space at the bus halt, they had to come to the Railway Station to wait until 3 in the morning.

The long-standing fuel scarcity has crippled the public transportation sector. This situation has put half of the working class population in a dilemma.

Working class citizens who live away from Colombo and travel by public transport every morning to their offices in Colombo were found spending their nights at their office premises if they are permitted whereas the rest have to adjust to alternatives such as parks, railway station, bus halt benches and waiting areas due to unaffordable rent, crippled public transport services and fuel scarcity.

Many of those who have fallen to such depths of destitution are the hostel renters, who now cannot afford to pay rent for a safe living space, since even affording three meals a day has started to become a luxury with the current state of the economy.

Ceylon Today scouted around Colombo to find out how far the fuel scarcity and the economic crisis in the country have dragged the public to the streets.

Weerasooriya and Kumari, who we met at the railway station entrance, noted that they were supposed to get on the last bus to Anuradhapura, which usually leave by 8 pm but since there were much traffic on the road they had got late to reach the bus terminal and the 8 pm bus had already departed.

“If we get on the 11pm bus it would be early dawn and can’t even walk back home at that time in Anuradhapura. There aren’t three-wheelers available due to the fuel shortage and we can’t tell one of our family members to come and pick us up at the bus halt due to the fuel issue. So we decided to get on the early morning bus. When we reach Anuradhapura it would be noon and we can at least safely walk home,” they added.

When middle-aged women are concerned about their safety to walk back home we met another woman who had been rendered homeless due to the economic crisis.

“How are we supposed to afford food when we can’t even afford rent?”

60-year-old Premawathi, Ruwani’s mother-in-law, who was sitting next to her, added that yet there are difficult days when they don’t receive any food.

“There are times where we can’t even just sit on the road because of the rainy weather. With this infant we have to find shelter inside a bus halt and any other place that has a roof. My other sons who work as three-wheeler drivers have also lost their way of living due to the current fuel crisis. I used to live alone at Kohilawatta.  My husband died 11 years ago and my sons, who are daily wage earners, usually visit me and provide me with some money so I can afford my meals and rent. Now because of the country’s situation even they have lost their income and they are even unable to feed their children and family.

I can’t even apply to the senior citizens allowance since I don’t have any identification. So I joined my daughter-in-law and my son on the streets when they also start living here because we can’t afford to pay rent or eat three meals a day. How are we supposed to afford to buy gas for Rs 7,000 and buy 1kg rice for Rs 250 when we can’t even afford Rs 1,800-2,000 a month for a shanty to avoid falling in the streets?” asked Premawathi with tears streaking down her cheeks.

“I just sit inside this bus halt all day and eat whatever people passing by donate”

When the night grew darker and there was nothing but street lights, Ceylon Today also looked for people who have started sleeping on bus halt benches, and found 60-year-old Publis who has started living in the bus halt next to the Buddhist Ladies College about a month ago. Half sleep and trying to make himself comfortable on the bench Publis said he used to work at the Maga Canteen.

“I used to work at Maga canteen as a daily wage earner. But, the canteen were closed now due to the gas problem. I even looked for a few other places but no place hires new employees these days. I used to live off my daily income, now I just sit inside this bus halt all day and eat whatever the passing by people donate,” Publis stopped talking and went back to sleep.

While travelling around Colombo, we passed a number of diesel queues where many people were seen spending their nights inside their vehicles and some even sleeping on the pavements.

“I can’t afford to stay anywhere else, the bus is the only way to get home”

Ceylon Today then visited a few transport hubs around Colombo. To our surprise, the bus halt close to the Fort Floating Market and the pavement around the area were swarming with people who were trying to make themselves comfortable to catch some sleep.

When we tried to sit on the pavement, Shammi, who was sitting there by 11pm waiting for the Awissawella bus which was to arrive there by 1am warned us to be careful because not everyone at the halt are actually waiting for a bus.

“You better be careful. Not everyone here is for the same purpose. I’m waiting for a bus to Avissawella. Usually there are buses to Avissawella at night but because of the diesel issue the next bus will be here by 1am only. I have no choice but sit here and wait for the bus. I can’t afford to stay anywhere else, the bus is the only way to get home,” added Shammi.

An individual who was half asleep waiting for the Horana bus noted that the next bus will come by 3am and now that they have no other option but to sleep in the bus halt waiting to catch the bus. 

In order to check with inter-provincial passengers Ceylon Today reached the National Transport Commission (NTC) Bus halt at Pettah. When inquired with the shop owners in the area, they claimed that the bus stand is always swarming with inter-provincial private buses but since the fuel scarcity the private buses have stopped operating and passengers who come to the halt have drastically reduced which has also affected their income.

When checking the NTC bus stand, the many areas that were allocated as waiting space were filled with passengers but no buses were seem to reach the bus halt anytime soon.

When Ceylon Today inquired, many passengers at the waiting area noted that they were informed that the buses to their respective locations would only start running by 5am- 6am.

“This is my third trip to Colombo to get my passport done”

Jayaseelan, who had missed the last bus to Nuwara-Eliya since he got late at the Department of Immigration and Emigration, he has to spend the night at the Nuwara-Eliya bus stand waiting till the 6am bus shows up.

“Usually there are buses that we don’t even have to book tickets. All we have to do is show up at the halt and get in the next bus. Now we have to waste hours waiting at bus halts securing our belongings. I used to work at a bakery, but now because of the country’s situation and lack of gas and diesel the bakery that I used to work is closed. This is my third trip to Colombo to get my passport done. I’m sick of travelling back and forth amidst the transport issue. I can’t afford to stay in Colombo until I get my passport because the stays here are too expensive.  It’s not even my fault that I missed the bus it because the Passport office officials don’t work according to the time or tokens that they give,” he added.

“There are no private buses where we can get in and just pay for tickets…”

A married couple who were waiting for the Puttalam bus noted that they couldn’t get into the previous bus since they hadn’t pre-booked the tickets.

“There are no private buses where we can get in and just pay for the tickets as there used to be. We used to travel like that. We both have to wait till the next normal bus shows up which they assume that will show up by 3am in the morning, we came to the halt by 10pm. We can’t stay in any rooms or lodges around here because the safety of these places are highly doubtful and with the current situation if we afford to manage to spend tonight in the halt we can use that money to buy some extra rations,” they added. 

“With the fuel shortage the whole transportation system is messed up”

23-year-old Isuru who was waiting close to the inquiring counter at the Fort Railway station noted that he was waiting for the next train to Kurunegala which will be at the station by 6am.

“I came to Colombo looking for a job but unfortunately the work that I came for wasn’t successful yet. I thought of getting on the next bus but found out that all the buses have been cancelled due to the diesel shortage and the next bus to Kurunegala is even after 8 am. Then I came to the railway station and found out there is a train to Kurunegala by 6 am which is convenient than waiting for the bus. I have no other choice but wait here, now I will have to come back to Colombo even the next day sometimes, with the fuel shortage the whole transport system is messed up,” he added with frustration.

“There is no way that a family of four can survive with one breadwinner”

Kumara who came to send his wife off at Katunayake Airport, was waiting for the next train to Passara. He noted that though he can afford to book a room in one of the lodges around, it is extremely dangerous to go stay in one of those alone.

“I used to work at Thummulla UNICEF office and lost the job during the pandemic. Then I started working as a taxi driver but due to the fuel shortage things have started becoming difficult than we thought. Therefore, my wife decided to take a job in a foreign country to look after both our kids. There is no job security in Sri Lanka. I suddenly lost my fixed income and even working as a taxi driver until I find a job is not an option anymore. There is no way that a family of four can survive with one breadwinner in Sri Lanka anymore. Now I have to anyway catch an early train to Passara to get to my kids, Because of the fuel shortages there much efficient transport service anymore,” he added.

When speaking to one of the policemen on duty  he noted that though the majority who wait for buses and trains are waiting because they are helpless, there are many who come there to steal and pick pocket. Due to the current situation of the country such incidents have increased.

The plight of the people who have lost their livelihoods due to the current economic crisis and resource shortages doesn’t seem to lessen in near future. With the rising number of queues at fuel sheds, the numbers which spend their nights at bus halts and railway stations is increasing. Does this mean that the number of homeless citizens who just work in order to find money only for their next meal be the next crisis?

(Pix by Buddhi Prabodha Karunaratne)

Story by Nabiya Vaffoor