Community of Care: The Ashoka Fellow Bringing Mental Healthcare To Kolkata’s Homeless

Kolkata has a homeless population of 70,000 and a significant percentage of these suffer from mental health conditions
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In the hustling-bustling lanes of Kolkata, as life moves fast for everyone else, there is a population that is constantly left behind. That of the homeless on the streets of this vibrant city. As per the Census in 2011, Kolkata has a homeless population of 70,000. And a significant percentage of these suffer from mental health conditions. Pushed to the margins, they lack access to basic care and support that could help them with their condition.

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Back in 2006, as she walked these streets with the late Dr K.L Narayanan, Sarbani Das Roy noticed a homeless man living inside the garbage vat right across the road from a reputed NGO for the homeless. Pained to see his condition, she approached the people at the NGO asking them why they wouldn’t take the man in. Citing his clearly disturbed mental health as a reason, the caregivers at the NGO expressed their inability to take care of him.

And that’s what set Ashoka Fellow Sarbani thinking. What if you could get the entire community to care about its mentally ill? Make them a part of the solution.

The state of West Bengal has the fourth highest prevalence of mental health disorder at 13%, according to the National Mental Health Survey, 2016; and the highest prevalence of psychosis and other severe mental health illness, including schizophrenia, at 1.26%, as per reports.

Instead of just relying on professional care for the mentally ill, which itself is in short supply compared to the demand, through her organisation, Iswar Sankalpa (God’s Resolution), Sarbani is bringing mental healthcare to the people on the streets through a cultivated community of caregivers. She’s creating networks between local vendors, chaiwallahs, police and the youth, and doctors at the Primary Health Centers in each municipality, who can then train these people to become citizen caregivers, assisting the homeless with food, medications and jobs.

And all this by appealing to the natural instinct of empathy and humanity among people.

Having brought care to thousands on Kolkata’s streets, Sarbani is now taking her idea to rural areas through the National Rural Health mission and to urban slums through the Municipal Health Care system. The potential of such a model is huge as it utilizes the community as a resource with minimal inputs and places people at the centre.

What drives Sarbani is not just a sense of compassion for those suffering but also a passion to reunite the homeless with their families. Having lost her mother at an early age, she remembers the sense of loss deeply, and through her remarkable work, she’s ensuring fewer people have to go through it. And by creating a community of changemakers, she is making sure that no one is ever left uncared for because of something that can be treated easily - the true power of a socially conscious community.

Sarbani Das Roy is an Ashoka Fellow and part of a network of leading social entrepreneurs bringing transformative change in society. To know more about Ashoka, head here. To connect with Sarbani, email  her at [email protected].