Globally, more people now live in urban areas than in rural areas. Over the past few decades, most lowincome countries have experienced a rapid population growth without adequate expansion of public services, and many cities in the developing world lack the infrastructure necessary to support high levels of urban population growth. As a result, globally, more than one billion people live in informal settlements or urban slums (1,2). Many others live where they can-at railway terminals and busstations, at ports, and in empty markets, parks, and stairways.
In almost every major urban centre of Bangladesh, tens of thousands of people live in overcrowded slums or public spaces that lack basic facilities, such as safe water, sanitation, and health services (3). Bangladesh has experienced one of the highest urban population growth rates (around 7%) in the last three decades compared to a national population growth rate of about 1.5% per year (4). In Dhaka, an estimated 37% (n=9,136,182) of the total metropolitan population in 2007 lived in slums (5). Dhaka continues to grow as a mega-city, with approximately 320,000 migrants annually. More than three-quarters of migrants find shelter in urban slums or do not find shelter at all. Employment, shelter, and accessibility to basic services for the growing urban poor populations-those who live in informal settlements and those who are homeless-are critical issues yet to be fully addressed by policy-makers in Bangladesh (6).
A study in Bangladesh in 1995 defined the homeless as people who sleep on streets, railway terminals and platforms, bus-stations, parks and open spaces, religious centres, construction sites, around graveyards, and in other public spaces with no roof (6). This population is sometimes referred to as 'streetdwellers'. A government census in 1997 used the term 'floating population' to describe "the mobile and vagrant category of rootless people who have no permanent dwelling units" and may be found spending the nighttime hours in the rail-stations, piers (launch ghat), bus-stations, closed bazaars, stairways of public buildings, and open spaces. The terms 'street-dweller' and 'floating population' are rarely used outside Asia (7). The definition of the homeless population in this study is based on the above descriptions.
The 1997 census count of the homeless population was 14,999 in Dhaka, with an additional 17,082 in other metropolitan areas of Bangladesh (7). A study in 2001 by the Marie Stopes Clinic Society (MSCS) estimated the number of homeless to be between 1,000 and 4,000 in each of seven major locations in Dhaka. The survey found that many homeless were living on their own: 26% were unmarried females and 15% unmarried males. However, 36% were living as married couples and families with an average family size of 3.6. The proportions of people in different age/sex-groups on the basis of rough estimates by homeless in seven locations were as follows: children-14%, adolescents-11%, women- 46%, and men-29% (8).
The definition of homeless used in the present study reflects that many people live without permanent shelter in major towns and cities. The 1997 study by Islam et al. found that 47% of the homeless in Dhaka lived on footpaths, 23% in the city's transport-stations, and 12% in front of major market centres. People are found in the above locations in all seasons, although their numbers vary throughout the year. Concentrations of people increase following natural disasters, such as flood, cyclone, and famine. During religious festivals, many rural poor from nearby districts migrate to the city and live temporarily as homeless to take advantage of increased seasonal charitable donations. However, the main reason for migration into the city is economic as many migrate permanently from rural areas to seek employment. Islam et al. found that nearly a quarter of the homeless came to Dhaka after losing their land and assets due to erosion of river-bank (6). …