Some of Dhaka’s 7,000 homeless people are supporting each other during the shutdown
Rubel and Naeem became homeless again when all transportation services were shut down to contain the spread of coronavirus. Kamalapur Railway Station had been their home ever since they left their poverty-stricken families a couple of years ago.
During the day, they carried passengers' bags and sold empty water bottles or discarded newspapers. As footsteps faded away, they slept on the platforms at night.
Now, the place has become off-limits to them just as it is for other people, except for the police. With no means to earn money, the children, around the age of eight to ten, begin their day collecting handouts. Their meal is whatever they get in the form of charity from others.
The boys are among more than 7,000 homeless people in the capital – as per the 2014 census of slums and homeless population – who make their homes in: bus and train stations, at launch terminals, in bazaars, and other open spaces. Their livelihoods have eroded with the imposition of social distancing.
Residents of slums – who make up over six percent of the urban population according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statics (BBS) – are no less vulnerable as the economic activities of rickshaw-pullers, labourers, construction workers, house maids, and transport workers have come to a sudden halt.
Sunday morning, Rubel flashed a smile and stretched out his right hand to show what he had gotten from a shop-owner – rice, potato and a packet of biscuits. Holding Naeem with his other hand, he ran across the road to a Railway Colony sidewalk around 10am.
There Rita and her husband Billal were waiting for the duo and preparing to cook what they had collected – brinjals and a handful of dried fish. Billal works as a helper at events like weddings and birthday parties. He has had no work for the last two weeks.
A bond between the couple and the children has grown in this trying time. They feel they are a family now from their links to the station. So when the fear of contracting Covid-19 made most Dhaka residents lock themselves in, the fear of hunger brought them together.
In front of the station, Delowar Hossain, a statistician, arrived with two others, by a motorized three-wheeler, to distribute cooked food among the homeless people. Within minutes, a crowd of people who were loitering on the sidewalks or sitting on road dividers gathered around them.
About 150 boxes of food vanished in the blink of an eye. When Lily Rani, around 60 years old, was told there was no more food, she grumbled.
"Why are you lazy people distributing food standing in one place? Don't you see the others? Take the trouble of walking a little to give to those nearby.... I had some khichuri [cooked rice with lentil] last night. For how long can one stay hungry?"
Babu, about 8, and Sumon, 27, also had khichuri on Saturday night. They spent the next morning lying on a pavement in the capital's Tikatuli. Their starving stomachs forced them to rise, to scavenge for recyclable plastic that they could sell for money.
With shops closed and barren streets, Sumon said, "Those are hard to find. We have not eaten anything today." He worried if both of them would even make Tk 100.
Sumon seemed to have taken on a brother-like responsibility for Babu – accompanying him everywhere – because he probably saw his childhood in the boy. Babu could not remember his parents, where they lived or whether they were alive.
Sitting on the boundary wall around Sadarghat Launch Terminal, 17-year-old Tania also said she did not have parents.
Pointing to the launches anchored there, she said, "I could ask for alms from travelers when the ships plied". She used to work for the garments industry, but recently factories are refusing to hire her without guardians and a birth certificate.
While Tania was talking, a young man passing by threw his right arm close to her nose, teasing her that her youth would be wasted away carrying onions and potatoes.
Tania hauled out a bag of vegetables that she had picked up from the nearby bazar and was planning to sell, to earn some cash. The afternoon sunlight fell on her face – it was shriveled from lack of food and water. She did not say anything when asked what she would have for lunch.
By that time, hot water with rice was bubbling in a pot on a makeshift stove at Railway Colony. Rubel and Naeem were eating mangoes plucked from trees inside the colony and were soon to sit together on the sidewalk with other "family members" for their first meal of the day.
They did not know what awaited them as dinner.
"God must have planned something for us. You know, a water pipeline snapped after the station was shut for commuters and we use the leaked water from there to wash and bathe," said Bristy who was cooking on the same sidewalk.