DUBAI // Unish Pun sleeps under a bridge. He washes in public toilets and waits in a park each night for a free meal donated by charity. Recently the 21-year-old Nepali found scaffolding work for Dh80 a day.
Homeless men like Mr Pun - most of them labourers who came for jobs that did not work out - are not wanted in the UAE yet stay on illegally, often unable to afford the air fare home, and survive as best they can.
While their life is not easy, it might hold more opportunity than their situation back home, where jobs are scarce, and those who took hefty loans from employment agents could even face jail.
Simply getting home poses another barrier. So they subsist, sleeping in parks, car parks and other secluded spots.
"People think there are lucrative jobs going around. They just take the chance," said K Kumar, head of the Indian Community Welfare Committee (ICWC), an aid group that helps Indian labourers here.
About two dozen jobless men are helped home each month by the ICWC. At least 100 others get by without, roaming the parks and public spaces in Dubai and Sharjah, according to one doctor who brings them food.
The Ministry of Labour did not respond to requests for comment on how many labourers were staying in the country illegally.
Dubai Municipality and the Dubai Naturalisation and Residency Department could not be reached for comment. The ICWC urges the men to go home, and helps them handle the paperwork and costs to do so.
"All the formalities, A to Z, should not take more than three weeks," Mr Kumar said.
If their passport is held by the employer, Indians can obtain a single-use "outpass" from the consulate that allows them to travel home, providing they can prove their citizenship.
They must get clearance from local authorities, for example, undergoing eye scans and paying the fine for overstayed visas. The fines are often reduced based on individual circumstances, and the airfare is covered by the ICWC, said Mr Kumar.
However, unpaid wages - sometimes running into months - are often irretrievable, he acknowledged, and many labourers face jail when they return.
But many who wish to leave are unaware of the assistance the ICWC and others offer.
The bus or taxi fare to different government offices can be prohibitive in itself, said Shashikala Devanapally, a doctor in Dubai who helps homeless people.
For many of the men who come to her, it takes several weeks just to get an outpass. Even then they have no way to pay their airfare home, she said.
In the meantime, they must survive homeless. Joginder Singh, 59, barefoot and with a scraggly beard, has spent the past month sleeping on a cardboard mat in a Karama car park that rattles all night to the sound of air conditioning units.
He worked as a foreman for a year, then found subcontracting jobs for months at a time, but none of them paid as promised, he said.
"How can I get help?" he asks.
Others manage better. Mr Pun, in Sharjah, much prefers being homeless in the UAE to going back to Nepal.
"Maybe in two years," he said vaguely.
He and his companions sleep on a concrete platform under a bridge that protects them from the wind. In the morning, they roll their mats and blankets into a pile weighted down with bricks.
Some then go to catch fish. Others stroll around the park. Sometimes they can scrape together enough for lunch at a nearby Pakistani restaurant, or they might spend what they have on bootleg beer and whisky.
Every so often an "agent" calls to offer them day labour, which is illegal.
Mr Unish recently travelled to Dubai for a temporary job laying planks of wood down on a three-storey scaffold. He and two friends spent several days climbing up and down the frame without safety gear.
At night they wait alongside dozens of others at a park in Sharjah for Dr Devanapally and her volunteers to arrive with tubs of rice and vegetable curry.
But some local residents do not approve. Fakhruddin Tutawala, 36, an Indian businessman whose apartment overlooks the park, said charity only attracts more homeless people.
His wife and daughter steer clear of the park these days to avoid the men, he said.
But he conceded all the same: "They want to survive."