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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 108 (Suppl.), December 2008



Fr. Barnabé d’souza, sdb,

Director of the shelter don bosco


1. The Indian Multi Religious Context:

The Indian context is unique in its multi-religious and multi-lingual ethos. India has 17 major languages with 844 different dialects; of its over 1 billion population, 80% are Hindus (Hinduism developed 5000 years ago). Around 500 BC, Buddhism and Jainism too took birth in India. In the 15th century, Sikhism developed which comprises 2% of the Indian population. 12% are Muslims. There are a few thousand Jewish settlers, while just 2% of India’s population (30 million) is Christian. In more than nine-tenths of the Indian states, religion plays a key role in their lives (Among Wealthy Nations ... U.S. Stands Alone in its Embrace of Religion. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press). Indians have a reputation for being tolerant in the social mainstream, and it is perceived that its causes of inter-community clashes have been political rather than ideological in nature.

It is in the background of this diversity and sheer numbers, that I would like to set my paper.

In Hinduism, Dharma (duty and religion) has four ‘ashramas’(stages): Grahmachariya (student life), Grihastha, (Householder), Vanaprastha (Retirement from society or into the forest), Sannyasa (Renounces social ties). The dharma of the Grihastha (householder) is to be hospitable, especially to the wander/homeless persons of the latter stages of life. Dana (charity) is to be done to gain religious merit, the recipient invariably has to invoke God’s blessing for the benefactor (Gore, 1996).

Hindu religious philosophy gave rise to various religious reform movements in the modern period from Swami Vivekanada, Raja Ram Mohan Roy to the illustrious Mahatma Gandhi. They were widely respected and drew much of their inspiration from Christ and His teachings. It is best seen in Gandhi quoting, ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others’. This idea of service is strongly recommended in all the other Indian religions mentioned above. The ‘dharma’ (duty/religion) to be hospitable to the homeless/wander/alms seeker; is thus a religious mandate which brings blessings on the benefactor. 

Christianity in India:

Christianity is believed to have come to India in  the Apostolic times of the 1st Century and later followed up in the 16th Century. With it was introduced diverse Christian sects. Much of Catholic missionary work has undergone profound change since the Second Vatican Council. It has become conscious of Social Justice issues being a constitutive part of preaching the Gospel. The church has been a forerunner in Education and Social Justice in the country. The commitment of Christian missionaries is embodied in Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata; Her vow never to refuse Jesus was the background to her vocation and commitment to work for the destitute/dying/homeless. 

2. The Situation of Homeless in India:

The Census of the Indian Government of 2001 estimates 13 million ‘houseless households’ (each household accounting for 5-6 members); the Census further states that there are an estimated 65 million houseless in the country. The Census traditionally collects information on Houseless households, those who do not live in a building or ‘census house’ but live in the open or road sides, pavements, pipes, flyovers etc. The data on houseless households provides an overview of the type of such households existing in the country who are either forced by poverty or other reasons compelled to live in the open. (Census 2001). These figures are made up by various sectors of the marginalized. UNICEF in 2000 reported there were 18 million street children in India. 400,000 rickshaw pullers and 100,000 other persons found in Delhi alone are homeless, 90% rickshaw pullers in Kolkata were found homeless. A 2002 Action Aid (NGO) survey identified 40,500 homeless in Chennai city, of which 13% begged for a living, the rest were involved in some form of casual employment. The 2001 Census of India estimated 314-354 million persons changing their place of residence within the country. Of these 29.90 million left their residence to find work. The inmates of the Beggars’ Home in Mumbai is just 1% of the total homeless population of Mumbai city. The Salesians of Don Bosco in India has a network of 54 NGOs catering for street children (of which Shelter Don Bosco is a part). In collaboration with the UNICEF (Delhi) it has a missing child search network/data for 25,000 children on the streets and in our Shelters. Shelter Don Bosco Mumbai, alone caters to 5,200 street and marginalized children in a month.

Added to these are small roadside vendors, construction workers, migrant jobseekers and millions of those working in the unorganized sector, that live without a home, at their jobsite, outside their workplaces or on the pavements.

Further contributing to the homeless population is the large population of displaced people due to political unrest (mainly) in North-East India, developmental induced displacement in urban India and naturally calamity induced displacement.

Shelter Don Bosco since 2000, has been fortunate in being involved in a couple of research studies[1] with several Universities in Asia under the banner of the International Federation of Catholic Universities[2] (IFCU – Paris) The focus of the present study is  Development Induced Displacement in Mumbai, wherein 35,000 families have been displaced due to rail and road developments. 130,000 persons are displaced along roadside pavements and in the next few decades, the aim is to ‘shift’ the nearly 9.5 million people living in slums, pavements and unsafe housing with a view to making Mumbai, in the words of the Chief Minister, ‘another Shanghai’.

This move for ‘another Shanghai’, has for those affected  caused intense, socio-economic marginalization, disruption of life-sustaining networks, family disruption, downward mobility, powerlessness and  lack of control over their circumstances, factors often leading to homelessness.

The man-made displacements that lead to homelessness, I believe, posits a wider question. In a democracy, who owns the land; its roads, rivers, fish, forests? The answer, I understand, is the States’ machinery, its policies and bureaucracy under the banner of progress, ‘the Greater good’…..etc. I see the drive in the commitment of Baba Amte (Social Activist) working for the displaced and homeless, ‘Consider’ he says, ‘The honey-bee, its treasure is nectar, obtained even from the chilly plant. It is not at the cost of the flower. In fact, its act of extracting honey contributes to the progress of the flowers’.  Displaced – homeless do suffer various losses most especially their social networks. Yet, their ‘progress’ if ‘led’ by committed persons, is well cushioned. The economic compensation however gratuitous when not coupled with a pastoral diakonia (service) drops short of the displaced people’s satiation.

Having stated the sheer numbers of homeless population, the lack of proof of identity or residence is another bane, rendering them ‘non-existent’ for Governmental policies. Hence they are non-entities, technically having no existence as individuals and so cannot avail of any citizenry benefits. Miloon Kothari, UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing in recognizing the rights of the homeless said, “The homeless are the most marginalized and vulnerable of the urban poor but have remained invisible to everyone, including planners, policy makers and people”.  

The Homeless Concept:

In tracing homelessness, I would like to contextualize their spatio-temporal reality as individuals and as groups (homologous or diversified). The ‘temporality of their lived space’ is a state of insecurity that means an uneasiness in a desired comfort zone. There is a  lack of Roots, a ‘Place’ to ‘Belong to’ to, have ‘an Address’ that subsequently gives them an identity and a plethora of citizenry rights/benefits.

The concept of Homelessness is rooted in incertitude, insecurity, characterized by an entrapment of a poverty cycle that is more structural and beyond their control; it espouses a sense of worthlessness. This state has been caused by a prior environment of family dysfunctionalism, lack of educational and economic opportunities and factors beyond their control. 

Roofless not Rootless:

In my experience with street children, their lack of belongingness triggers a chain reaction of lacking an identity, citizenship, self worth and a desire to make a positive progress in life. While on the other hand when working with a nomadic (Banjara – Tribal) community in Madhya Pradesh (Central India), I understood, their homogeneity gave them an identity and a trace to firm establishment in their roots. They were roofless/homeless but not rootless.

I look at Jesus as the model, wandering in His public ministry, yet very firmly rooted with the Father. He set a prototype of pastoral care, displaying subtly a flock and His shepherding role.

The Human Commitment to Pastoral Care:

Certain principles guide the pastor in caring for the homeless; Promoting justice for the poor is a matter of restoration of human dignity. Solidarity with the poor is a religious calling. Global justice is about ensuring protection of human rights and all having access to basic goods. It is about inclusion, about making sure that no one is left behind.

Yet what would characterize the human commitment of pastoral care for the homeless? I believe it is a vocation that is nurtured in formation through experience, diligence and human exigency that forms the individual pastor.

His vocation needs the nurturing and growth in time, events, belief in ideals and participation in interventions during his initial formation.

His orientation in networking, reading, advocacy and using means to keep his interest and creativeness is towards his self-preparedness for the mission.

He is a ‘Root-digger’ who roots himself in Christ and digs deep with his flock to plant their roots in this rootedness in Christ.

He needs to guard against a danger of losing focus, of mixing roles and the temptation to become an interventionist/A social worker over pastoral care. A social worker would like to restore justice, human rights and apply his knowledge/skills. The pastor brings God who is the source and reason of his agency; he fits himself as God’s instrument. His human commitment is one of availability and openness to God.

In my own experience of presently living (for 13 years) in Shelter Don Bosco (a home for 250 residential street children with 8 other projects for marginalized children) and working with marginalized children (21 years), I have drawn from my own commitment in my vocation, from an understanding of needs of a vulnerable child, in not being able to wait for things to happen but to be a part of making it happen. To experience the ‘Living I’ (Whitehead, 1999), of being an actor rather than a passive passer by. To be participative, wanting to bring a witness of Christ in my non-Christian context[3]. I believe is an expression of my salesian vocation and spirituality.

I asked several individuals to articulate their commitment to the pastoral care of the homeless: The motivation for me and several pastors has been Isaiah (61:1-2) “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to preach good news to the poor…set prisoners free…comfort to all who grieve”

What stands out is the fourth vow of the missionaries of charity of, ‘Whole-hearted  and free service to the poorest of the poor, according to the statutes and spirituality of Mother Teresa of Kolkata’.

I got a whole range of responses: “Caritas Chrisit urget nos” (St. Paul). A desire to change  situations, Human suffering is the motivation, a Concern for the unloved, to spread God’s unconditional love have been some of the responses.

Motivational theorists assume that learned behavior will not occur unless ‘energized’(I interpret as a Christological experience). Franken (1994) (psychologist) defines motivation in human behavior as, ‘The arousal, direction and persistence of behavior’. I put forward this question on his commitment to volunteer with our street children for 6 months, (second year in a row) of a 21 year old youngster from Australia, His reflection is interesting;

“Human commitment to help the homeless is important. My drive to help comes from a desire to show that people care that their lives are not worthless. I believe the commitment to showing the homeless that you care is just as important. Street boys will remain street boys unless their thinking changes; even with money their sense of worthlessness will remain. Without the spirit of human commitment, the homeless would be worse off than they are now.

I wish to connect with human beings that are far less fortunate that I am; to have a basic level of connection, on a non- materialistic level. It is important to me to experience everything I can, to enhance my connection with the most basic and greatest aspect of humanity, the interaction between humans. I have been brought up with all the comforts of a comparatively rich family. I am not selfless; there are few that are completely selfless but I would like to become less selfish. I want to better myself as a human being. I would like to immerse myself in a culture of people less fortunate than myself and give what I can in the hope of developing selflessness within myself. I have a long way to go to become what I would consider a great human being but my determination to try is, I believe, a good start. This is my drive, the centre of my being to better myself.” 


Homelessness is a social lacuna. They are devoid of all securities. Historically we have seen a movement from Charity models in the past to contemporary Partnership Models of Community building.

I think rather than analyse and statistically enumerate the homeless, an understanding of their feelings, behaviours, and being present/available for them is the call. For pastoral care, love is the basic virtue and a concrete form of outreach.

In this contextual reflection I would like to posit an evolving Spirituality for the pastoral care of the homeless:

His Ideology (Religious) is driven by Convictions he has forms.

These Convictions are made from lived/learnt Experiences.

Our Experiences instil Passion in us

The Passion is fitted in a Process which brings us Upliftment/Satisfaction.

This entire Journey (process) can be termed as Spirituality.

The Human Commitment for the Pastoral care of the Homeless is a Spirituality embedded in our God experience. 


1) Desai M (2002) Ideologies and Social Work: Historical and Contemporary Ideologies , Jaipur: Rawat Publishers

2) Whitehead, J. (1999) How do I improve my practice? Creating a New Discipline of Educational Enquiry. PhD Thesis, University of Bath

3) Franken, R. (1994). Human motivation (3rd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co. retrieved from 3rd ELTKonf/pos_bora_demir.htm





[1] Shelter Don Bosco (studied Marginalized Adolescents and Development) collaboration with IFCU a) ‘Asian laboratory socio-cultural studies for the Development of the Human Being’ (200-2003). (with 4 partner Asian Universities) b) ‘Insights into Displaced Populations’(2006-2009) (with 4 other partner Asian Universities).

[2] IFCU-Created by a Decree of the Holy See in 1948, it was recognized by Pope Pius XII in 1949 and became the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU- Paris) in 1965.   

[3] Non-Christian Context- In Shelter Don Bosco there has been a ratio of service to 60% Muslims and 40% Hindus. In the past few years there have been just a 3/4 Christian street children in our Shelter.