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The Banyan Story

All photos taken by @madrascollective (Instagram) © J.J. Rajendran / The Banyan, 2018

Today, as one walks through the doors of the Banyan’s Emergency Care and Recovery Centre (ECRC) , you get the sense that you are entering a very close-knit community, where everyone has a role to play. Near or next to the reception, you see the Loom Room, where women with histories of homelessness and mental illness living at the ECRC, designing, weaving and selling products via the Banyan collective.

Business is booming in user-directed initiatives such as the Nalam Cafe and the Nalam Potti Kadai, an initiative that stores knickknacks, accessories, ice-creams, wafers, flowers and vegetables for sale. Romeo and Kuppu (dogs on campus) are gambolling around in the courtyard, forming relationships based on friendship and comfort with those around. 

Courtesy: The Banyan

In 1993, two students pursuing postgraduate courses, Vandana Gopikumar and Vaishnavi Jayakumar, came across a homeless woman with mental illness on the street in distress – someone who looked socially and economically bereft. Unable to find local mental health facilities willing to provide shelter or medical help, they decided they would step in. This led to the formation of The Banyan. Over the last 26 years, the organisation has expanded to develop and offer mental health solutions rooted in social justice across communities

“Today, aside from the ECRC in Mogappair, we run a shelter in Santhome for homeless men with psychosocial needs in partnership with the Corporation of Chennai under the National Urban Livelihoods Mission (NULM). We also have clinics in Kovalam and a range of rural interventions that work directly with the communities. Our focus is placed on enabling self – directed care, as this will allow trajectories that move towards designated goals of mental health, autonomy, well being and choice.”


It is elaborated that there are many reasons why homelessness and poor mental health to go hand-in-hand, especially for women. She narrates the story of one of their clients, a service user who faced intimate partner violence on a regular basis and had to grapple with poverty, associated deprivations and social pressures while parenting her four children with very less support. The interplay of gender-based barriers and further intersections like class and caste determines and impacts well being. 

Throughout the various projects of the Banyan, one thing is constant – they refer to people who access service from them as “service users” or “clients”.  Their clients range in age from eighteen to people in their old age and are not just from Tamil Nadu, but from states all over India. For every service user that calls the Banyan their home, the staff have made sure to tailor their environment to their needs – For instance they direct the clothing they would be most comfortable in, which is made available by their on-site tailor. This extends to other preferences such as food as well. 

“Preferences of users who are not from Tamil Nadu, can be dictated by notions of familiarity, identity and home within the context of their socio cultural milieu. For someone from Kolkata, eating fish might take precedence over a standard rice and curry. We enlist efforts to allow the same. Inviting service user’s feedback forms an intrinsic part of our program goals and implementation,”  

An employee from the banyan Team
Courtesy: The Banyan

Residents are encouraged to set their routines, pursuits and aspirations. Vocational skill hubs and micro-enterprises led by users such as cafes and salons are co-managed allowing peer leadership in innovation. Users form part of the environment by assuming diverse roles that foster dignity in living, sense of purpose and autonomy in self. 

“It could be something simple such as a bank account, driving license or an Aadhar card,” she says. “access to these social welfare measures, enables them to access the resources they are entitled to as per state health policies as well.”

It was while trying to extend their approaches of care, The Banyan started its Home Again (HA) intervention. HA is an approach that offers users with long term care needs an opportunity to live together in neighbourhoods alongside supportive services as required. Houses are rented across sites and equipped with basic needs. Residents get a chance to forge friendships, pursue aspirations of daily living, economic and social transactions, work options and define life on their own terms. They form relationships with their neighbours, inviting them to their house for tea, participate in community festivities and the likes. This option is currently available in Mogappair, Kovalam and Trichy in Tamil Nadu, apart from Kerala and Maharashtra.

The Home Again chapter in Trichy is actioned by Amali and Jacqueline, service users themselves for a decade. HA has seen significant gains via reduced disability levels and increased community integration and social transactions. The model has been replicated across states. Most recently The Banyan entered into a partnership with the Government of Maharashtra to offer supportive housing for long stay clients from state mental hospitals in local neighbourhoods of Ratnagiri and Thane.

Courtesy: The Banyan

Nalam (which means wellness in Tamil) is the third main approach of The Banyan which offers community-based mental health services in proximal locations via women from the community (also known as Nalam workers). Often they draw from their personal experience to mitigate distress and provide a range of services from counselling to social welfare facilitation across rural and urban areas.

The Banyan also holds regular aftercare clinics, where sustained social and clinical support is made available for clients post-discharge through telephone follow-ups and home visits. Postal medication, counselling services, individual care plans, home-based care, disability allowances and bespoke support packages are offered to ensure their continued well being.

The Banyan regularly makes efforts to spread awareness on homelessness amongst the general public. In 2019, they hosted the Chennai edition of the World’s Biggest Sleepout, originally started in the United States. Over 200 people spent a night out in a public school ground in Besant Nagar, to display their solidarity. The event also featured performances such as open mic concerts, discussions and speeches by people with lived experience of homelessness and mental illness.

As one walks out of the gates of the ECRC, receiving affectionate farewell nudges from Romeo, and smiles from the dutiful staff, clients and guards, one feels like in the Banyan, they have found both a reprieve from the outside world and a whole new world within.


Twenty-six years ago, The Banyan was started to enable people who fall within the intersection of mental illness, homelessness and poverty, access better lives with meaning. The start of the year is one such time when we would ideally like residents to celebrate in ways that personally resonate with them (for some it may be new clothes of their choice, while for others it may be good food). 

However, intent does not suffice. Celebrating festivals need resources. We ask you to encourage us and donate, to help facilitate a big, happy and fabulous day for each one of our residents. We accept donations throughout the year.

To contribute ​click https://bit.ly/354wbnr , call +91 96771 21099 or write to jjra@thebanyan.org.

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