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City of angels

Reunion with family of Chennai patient successful. Response : excellent.’ Psychiatrist Bharat Vatwani, founder and trustee of Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation just received this SMS when we meet him at the Borivli centre on Thursday. “This is what we do. The mentally-ill destitute you see on the roads, is not always just a drug addict or a beggar. They are ‘the wandering ill’ who might die if they don’t receive our help,” says Vatwani, who runs two homes — in Borivli and Karjat — that house and treat the destitute from the streets and help them reunite with their families.

Surrounded by bulging gunny bags, their bodies ravaged by open wounds and maggots, the homeless ill are often looked upon as dangerous. But doctor Vatwani explains that often, they are people who may be suffering from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, or other diseases such as cancer and HIV.

However, there are those who take it upon themselves to solve their problem. Take for instance, Domnic D’Souza, a 44 year-old telephone operator at Sion Hospital, who first rescued one such homeless destitute in 1991 as a 23 year-old.

“I was on the way to mass, when I came across a 40 year-old man. He had a head injury and maggots had eaten into it. I asked him whether I could do anything for him and he asked for a cup of tea,” D’Souza recalls. He requested a nearby tea stall vendor to give him some tea, but was denied.

“I ended up feeding him tea through a leaf. I went for mass soon after but could not concentrate. I went back to the spot but did not find the man,” says D’Souza. He later saw him at Shanti Avedna, a hospice for terminal cancer patients in Bandra, where he had been helping to take care of patients, without knowing they were people from the streets. “That is when I realised that there were people in the city who were helping the destitute,” he says. He then joined hands with Bharat bhai Unatkar, who had taken the old man to the home.

Today, D’Souza takes off in his van after getting a call from residents in whichever part of the city, and picks up “people lying on the streets”. “I network with NGOs so I can admit more people. I first evaulate their condition and admit them accordingly,” he says. And, in return, he offers to drive the admitted patients to hospitals for medical check-ups, surgeries and follow-ups.

While most homes and ashrams have trained staff to treat wounds and do dressings, the patients are taken to government hospitals for surgeries and check ups. With 21 years of experience, D’Souza has many friends who are in different fields of medicine who willingly come and help patients. Today, he rescues almost 20 destitutes per month, and has rescued almost 4,500 such persons till date.

D’souza keeps in touch with many others like him, one being 49 year-old Yogesh Shah from Chinchpokli, who has been helping the homeless destitute for the past 25 years. “I used to scout weddings and social gatherings along with some society friends. We could collect the leftover food and distribute it to orphanages,” says Shah.

Just last week, they helped a 13 year-old boy from Haryana reunite with his family. “He had a mental illness due to which he did not know how and why he came to Mumbai.

He did not even remember his address. So, we took him to a shelter that took care of him till he could recollect information about his family. A social worker will also accompany him to his home,” says Shah.

Vatwani believes that the state government needs to build a separate cell for the ‘wandering ill’. There is a tremendous lack of awareness about mental illness,” says Vatwani, who runs a 6.5-acre institution in Karjat, which can house up to 80 people. The patients are encouraged to indulge in exercises, games, farming, cooking, cleaning and prayer. The staff of 34 includes social workers from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and even Bihar to bridge the language barrier one often faces with patients.

“Since January this year, our institution has reunited 405 destitute from all over the country with their families,” says Vatwani, whose centre rescues one destitute a day on an average. 

Helping the homeless 
Having reached 15 minutes before the scheduled time for the interview, I stand outside Sion Hospital for Domnic D’Souza, who rehabilitates Mumbai’s homeless. At the corner of Gate 1 of the hospital, my eyes fell on a man of around 35 years of age, his face covered in bruises, open cuts and several cricket ball-sized blisters. In another corner, a mentally retarded 20 year-old boy sits in the middle of the footpath, speaking to himself, once in a while looking up at the passersby. “These are the people I help. Death with dignity is my mission; no person should die alone on the street,” D’Souza tells me, after he arrives in a rescue van. 

 

Halfway into the interview, he stands up. “We’ll talk on the way. I need to drive two homeless people lying outside to Ashadaan.” This ashram in Byculla for abandoned children and the destitute, run by the missionaries of charity. 
 
As we walk to the van, I ask him about his missing footwear. “I am doing work for god, so I gave up footwear this August,” he responds matter-of-factly, adding that work without prayer is no good. He drives to the footpath and helps them into the van. Their faces, devoid of all emotion, light up faintly. Without a word, they crawl into the car, too weak to even stand up. “They will take care of you,” he assures them during the ride. 
 
Once at the home, they will be given a shower, change of clothing, and their wounds will be cleaned, D’souza explains.
 
Outside, one can hear the hustle-bustle of the Byculla market, but once inside, the chirping of sparrows deafens all other noise. 
 
A 60 year-old man comes running to D’Souza. “I am fine now, the maggots are all gone. Please drop me home,” he tells D’Souza, who happily opens the van’s back door for him. “When I met him, he had maggots above the right eye. They missed his eyes by millimetres. God helped me save his eye. I feel good,” D’Souza signs off. 

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