Two decades ago, Chennai’s homeless women existed as an invisible minority.
They were battered, bruised, abused, both physically and sexually, forced to eat out of garbage bins, ignored and had no place to call home. They would have stayed this way had it not been for the strong will, drive and empathy of two young women.
Vandana Gopikumar, then a Master's student of Social Work, came across a woman outside of her college. She was half-naked, mentally ill, homeless and deeply distressed. With the help of a close friend, Vaishnavi Jayakumar, they tried to find shelter for the woman.
Mental health institutions and NGOs were reluctant to admit the woman in desperate need of medical and psychiatric attention. More importantly the opportunity to live an independent and fulfilling life seemed almost non existent with stigma and prejudice being rampant and solutions few and far apart, this extremely vulnerable group seemed alienated and hypersegregated and in need of urgent attention and care. Several more such encounters over the next few months left the idealistic duo disillusioned and the idea was born that they should do something about the problem themselves.
It has been 25 years since The Banyan first began as a small safe haven and rehabilitation centre for homeless women with mental health issues.
For the first 10 years, our organisation grew organically by responding to the needs of our clients.
We focused on forming a well-rounded model for emergency mental health care, then as more and more of our clients regained functionality they began to express a desire to go back to their homes and thus our reintegration programme was formed and many of our clients were able to go back home.
Despite that fact, we noticed that of those individuals who went back home only half of them continued to stay well. The other half suffered from a relapse of symptoms and some even falling back into homelessness.
This was due to a lack of localised care and a lack of local support networks. Our understanding of the larger ecosystem that was causing this problem grew.
Those with mental health issues were experiencing distress because of a variety of reasons including poverty, family dynamics, financial instability, community relationships, workplace dissatisfaction and a lack of government resources
As a reaction to this we formed our outpatient programmes as a way to prevent the descent into homelessness. We created safe spaces where those with mental health issues and their caregivers could receive both clinical and social support.
We also noticed that a small number of our clients were not able to go back home on account of high support needs or because they did not have a home to go back to. Thus, our long term inclusive living options were formed.
As our organisation has grown, so have our programmes, reach and partnerships. We work with the support and in collaboration with a variety of national and international stakeholders to make an impact on mental health policy, education and research.