Sriram Gutta

From Pavement Begging to Stable Housing, Stable Incomes : The Equitas Bird’s Nest program is moving pavement dwellers in Chennai toward secure housing

John Alex has more than 30 years experience in the banking and financial services space. He has been with Equitas since 2008 and heads the firm’s social initiatives. As programme director of the Equitas Bird’s Nest program, his focus is moving pavement dwellers in Chennai toward secure housing and stable income generation.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to interview Alex about Equitas’s ultra poor pilot in Chennai. In this interview, he talks about the challenges his team faced while working with the pavement dwellers, the importance of sustainability and the road ahead for Equitas Bird’s Nest program.

(Full disclosure: the Equitas Bird’s Nest was part of the Sorenson / Unitus Ultra Poor Initiative, for which I was the program manager).

Sriram Gutta: Could you talk a bit about the impetus and goals for the Equitas Bird’s Nest program?

John Alex: Equitas Bird’s Nest initiative was launched given our founder, P.N. Vasudevan’s (Vasu), vision of improving lives of the pavement dwellers in Chennai. Moved by their plight, Vasu had initially launched Equitas (formerly known as Upliftment of Pavement Dwellers and Beggars limited) to specifically work with this segment. He later realized that microfinance loans weren’t the best way to pull people out of extreme poverty. His vision was to assist the pavement dwellers in a way that promoted self-sufficiency. Vasu felt strongly that the pavement dwellers could improve their own quality of life if given the right opportunities.The primary goal of the program was to move households off the pavement and into stable housing. Secondary objectives included creating food security and a stable income through livelihood activities.

SG: Moving pavement dwellers off the streets and into stable housing was the initial intention, but you realized that participants were reluctant to make the move for fear of losing the only income they could rely on: begging. What was your reaction to this finding and what was the process of revising the model?

JA: It was indeed surprising for us that the beneficiaries were skeptical about moving in to housing. These people feared that by moving away from the pavement they would lose the handouts that were their only source of income, so help them get of this fear and gain confidence we had to alter our model. Instead of starting livelihoods training after moving them in to housing, we started the livelihoods training while they were still on the pavement. Once these people began their livelihood activity and realized that they could earn a steady income from an activity beyond begging, they began to move from the streets into the secured rental units.

Some of them also were skeptical about the model and it took several visits from the team to develop their confidence.

SG: The introduction of an income-generating opportunity also had an impact on the financial sustainability of the program, with the beneficiaries able to cover many of their own costs. What has been the reaction among participants to the change and what impact do you think it has had on the program’s effectiveness?

JA: When we first started the program, we were very skeptical about beneficiaries’ ability to pay their own rent. However, the last 24 months have proven that these people are willing to pay for services and not looking only at charity. With the income generating skill that we taught them, beneficiaries gained confidence in themselves and their capacity to earn for their families as productive citizens. With the increase in their monthly income, the beneficiaries they were able ability purchase food more regularly than before and for the first time in their lives have been able to afford paying rent. This actually deterred them from going back to begging and the incremental income was sufficient to pay the rent.

Furthermore, the ability to recover the costs from the beneficiaries has decreased our per-beneficiary cost from $600 to $100. There are ways to reduce this cost even further and make the program sustainable and hence scalable.

SG: Aside from introducing the livelihoods and cost-recovery components earlier, anything you would you have done differently?

JA: One of our biggest bottlenecks in the program was finding housing units that were both affordable and accessible. We believe that the best way to scale this initiative is to partner with other organizations or the government for housing while Equitas could handle other aspects of the program. These partnerships can ensure that beneficiaries move in and stay in their new homes, an outcome in line with our objective to clear the pavements in Chennai.

SG: Any memories you can share from the moving days? How did the participants respond the first time your team handed them the keys to their own homes?

(Pavement dwellers make their home at T Nagar in Chennai).

JA: I still remember the day when we moved the first 10 families in to housing. All of them had mixed feelings – a sense of pride to have a shelter for the first time in their lives coupled with the anxiety of moving to a new place. Some of the families even had tears in their eyes as we handed them keys to their houses.

The families helped each other to transport the few household items they owned to the new houses. We received immense support from some of our microfinance clients who were residing in these areas. They welcomed the beneficiaries are ensured that they were comfortable.

SG: What’s next for the program?

JA: We have successfully shifted over 100 families in to housing and all of them continue to pay their own rents while taking part in income generating activities. We have also helped them to get voter cards (a proof of identification that allows someone to vote in elections). Our initial goal was to graduate some of these people (who have their own small businesses) to our microfinance activities. We are in the process of extending our first loan(s) to some of these families.

We are also currently talking to several government bodies including the local corporations and the slum board to develop a public private partnership to ensure that all the pavement dwellers in Chennai are moved to housing. We would then like to scale the program in other cities.

housing, microfinance, poverty alleviation