In the organic environment of many developing areas throughout the world, government policies are not always sufficient to solve the problems that arise from rapid urban growth. mHS CITY LAB, an NGO focusing on informal housing solutions with team members in Italy and India, addresses the policy and market gap of affordable housing by implementing a creative and sustainable shelter solution for informal residents in India.


Push and pull factors contribute to an influx of urban immigration as people leave their rural hometowns in search of opportunities and a better life. The severe housing shortages due to rapid population growth is apparent throughout India; 60% of Delhi’s housing is self-built informally by residents according to a study by mHS CITY LAB. People greatly desire to live in the city and are willing to accept sub standard living conditions, including being homeless.

A survey in 2014 by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), an agency under the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, counted 16,760 homeless residents. According to DUSIB, 275 official homeless shelters provide a capacity for 19,764 residents. Yet the government shelters are underutilized, as they tend to be inadequate and inappropriate in terms of function. Many shelters are constructed from tin, which feel like ovens in the Delhi summer so most residents prefer to sleep outside, leaving the sweltering shanties abandoned. Additionally, a large segment of the homeless population work as rickshaw drivers, and as the official shelters often do not provide a safe parking space near the residence, the drivers usually prefer to sleep in their vehicles to prevent theft.

The DUSIB population figures are also underestimated. Ultimately, there is no accurate estimate of the true size of the homeless population in Delhi. A 2008 night survey in the homeless communities by Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS), an NGO working with vulnerable communities in India, identified 88,410 homeless people in Delhi. Not only is the survey 7 years old, but IGSSS noted that for every one person counted, there is a possibility of one person being uncounted because they work at night. Thus, experts reckon that there are currently over 150,000 homeless people living in Delhi, which is almost 9 times more than the DUSIB estimate.

A common misconception about the homeless is that they are all beggars without jobs. However, in India many of them do work as day laborers, rickshaw drivers, rag pickers, or trinket salespersons. Understanding the segmentation amongst the homeless could render much more efficient solutions. The government does not charge for the use of night shelters which is sensible for destitute persons, drug addicts, etc., but migrants that choose to be homeless due to lack of affordable housing options would be able to pay a basic fee. As a result, the government could adopt a more financially viable business model and be able to provide many more shelters.

Policies and regulations inhibit the construction of informal housing, which makes it difficult for new urban immigrants to establish safe residences that provide privacy and physical security. These government policies may be intentionally discouraging migrants from settling in the city in hopes of preventing further migration into an already overpopulated area. However, people should have the right to pursue employment opportunities wherever they may appear, and this workforce is key for the expanding economy of cities. The government should have an obligation and an interest in making urban communities sustainable and inclusive.


mHS is working closely with homeless urban residents to develop a bottom-up approach for suitable home creation with sustainability as a key design focus. Through extensive data and feedback collected from the homeless community, mHS designed an affordable, portable, and scalable shelter, called ekSHELTER, to meet the needs of footpath dwellers. The size of the shelter is designed for a family and fits 2 adults and 1-2 children.

ekSHELTER can be easily fabricated and repaired anywhere in India with the use of local and affordable materials for approximately 18€ ($20 USD). The main framework is built from bamboo, a rapidly renewable material available throughout India, and only a few other materials such as steel rebars, canvas, and mosquito netting are required to complete the structure. The design and production also stimulates the local economy by supporting local businesses, including tailors, welders, and bamboo farmers.

With the challenges of a hard pavement and not being able to construct anything permanent, a bamboo frame held together by welded steel rebars and roofed with a stitched canvas cover allows for the shelter to be quickly mounted, transported, and stored away on a daily basis. Mosquito net lining protects residents from diseases such as dengue fever and malaria, and the waterproof canvas offers plenty of ventilation as appropriate for the tropical climate. The design of the tent is thought out from a micro-level, including details such as pockets for storage on the interior, to a macro-level where the entire structure can be easily folded up into a tidy package making it conveniently portable.

The streamlined design creates a high impact that makes ekSHELTER easily scalable and adapted for use in other contexts. The simple and quick assembly without the need for ground anchoring makes it possible to be used on any surface. The shelter design can even be repurposed for use in post disaster relief situations. The long-term vision is for the shelter to be so affordable that it will be used by the transitioning population not only throughout India but also all over the world.

ekSHELTER is an example of how tailored solutions could be created if the homeless population is understood and listened to. For the homeless, having a well-designed and comfortable living space to call their own will make an immediate and palpable impact on their quality of life and on their future prospects. While this does not address the longer-term situation for homelessness, the shelter will provide a temporary safe haven that functions both as a physical place of rest as well as a psychological anchor in a rapidly changing urban community.