Priyanka Mehta Wednesday 09th January 2019 09:28 EST
Sikh Welfare Awareness Team volunteer with a rough sleeper 

About 600 homeless people died on the streets or in temporary accommodations in England and Wales in 2017, up 24% between 2013-17 in the last five years, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). While the Tories boast about creating more jobs, it is undeniable that there is a growing poverty issue across the country.

The evidence is there for all to see.The number of people officially recorded as homeless and sleeping on the streets of England rose from 1,768 in 2010 to 4,751 in 2017, but charities estimate the true figure has been more than double. There has also been an increase in homeless families housed by local authorities in temporary accommodation, rising from 50,000 in 2010 to 78,000 in 2017. And in London alone there are an estimated 225,000 “hidden homeless” people aged 16-25 – arranging their own temporary accommodation with friends or family.

Meeting Inderjeet Singh, a roughsleeper in London

Inderjeet Singh sat huddled opposite JD sports in the Stratford Shopping Centre. Legs outstretched and crossed in front of him, he had his left hand fisted in his threadbare woollen hoodie and his right toying with the bottle cap of the drink he had just finished.

“I'm one of them” he nods off in the direction of the queue, all of them similar looking yet different in their mismatched worn-out woollens. Noticing my frown he clarifies- “I am a Sikh and I'm from India!”

17 years ago, Inderjeet migrated from Punjab to London and started working for a construction company. But since the last three months, he has been sleeping rough and wandering around the city for warm shelter and one-square meal.

“You know the Whitechapel?” he slurs, his voice barely inaudible, non-committally replying- “I go there in the morning, take a shower...have some breakfast, coffee and go...”

Where does he take-off, half the days even he doesn't know! Talking about his family and relatives in the UK, he tells me about an estranged daughter and a broken marriage because of “the way his life is”. He resumes the twisting of the bottle cap as he mentions out of the blue about his application for permanent citizenship in the UK. How much of what he told me that day is true may be debatable, chances were he might have been under influence or suffering from mental health issues. But, what was clear to me from the empty styrofoam containers, plastic bottle and his blanket lumped beneath him was that he was “homeless” and shame colouring the dark patches beneath his eyes.

His twitch, the most persistent when “his friends” curiously looked down upon us. All these friends who queued up outside the campsites of Nishkam Sikh Welfare & Awareness Team (SWAT) for their share of the night's hot meals. 

Seva from Nishkam Sikh Welfare & Awareness Team: 3000 meals a week

Nishkam SWAT is a charitable organisation based in West London which started its homeless project in 2008 after discovering that more than 200 people were sleeping rough in their local area, Southall, Middlesex. 

“Today we serve up to 3000 meals which effectively means serving 3000 people on a weekly basis across 21 outreach sessions in the UK!” said Harnam Singh, a volunteer for Nishkam SWAT.

The numbers are rising not necessarily because people are becoming homeless. One of the factors that Harnam says they have noticed is how some of these “people have homes and they are struggling in paying their bills but after all these expenses they are left with little or no money for food which is pushing them to poverty lines”

So, sometimes these Nishkam SWAT outreach sessions to some people often serve as a food bank relieving the people of their struggles of buying fresh food. This comes at a time when retailers lifted their prices by an annual 0.3 percent, the biggest increase since April 2013, according to the British Retail Consortium and market research firm Nielsen.

What comprises a Nishkam SWAT meal though? A breakfast bar, a fruit, a drink and a hot meal which can vary from Italian Pizza slices to daal and rice depending upon what is being cooked and organised by his team of 850 volunteers. These volunteers are from the community who want to contribute to the society and come to about Nishkam SWAT through word of mouth. But before commencing they have to undergo a 90-minute training session wherein learn about personal safeguarding and the history of Nishkam SWAT, alongside any future projects.

“They have to ensure their own safety as well as the safety of the members around them while on these outreach session when it comes to interacting with service users and being aware of how to deal with them should they have sudden fits!” Harnam explained especially talking about how among their team of volunteers are also some doctors who help out with general counselling and medical assistance.

9% Asians are homeless

In 2017/18, there were 56,580 households in England in 'statutory homelessness', which is when a household is unintentionally homeless and is considered a priority (for example, because it has dependent children). 9% of all homeless households were Asian, 4% were from a Mixed ethnic background and 4% were from the Other ethnic group; ethnicity wasn't known for 6% of homeless household. London had the highest overall number of homeless households; it also had the lowest percentage of homeless households made up of White households. 

“We've got one ambulance apart from the 9 delivery vans which we use in medical situations,” Harnam told me.

This whole concept of food for the homeless is derived from the Sikh concept of Langar. And while they have volunteers cooking for these sessions, Nishkam SWAT also receives contributions from different restaurants that supply with freshly cooked meals. Companies like British Airways and GlaxoSmithKline also donate their bit in ensuring that people have all the basic necessities, especially in these adverse weather conditions.

“A positive challenge for us today is that there are more and more people are turning up to these outreach sessions and it is unfortunate that this crisis is growing but we want to reach out to as many people and bring smiles on their faces” Harnam concludes.

Food for All and Emergency Shelters

Following along similar lines is the “Food For All” project organised by the Hare Krishna Mandir which started back in 1988.

But aside from campaigns the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, ordered the opening of cold weather shelters for the first time this year, providing an extra 700 beds for rough sleepers and others in need. These shelters, which are located across the capital, will remain open throughout the weekend after a Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) alert was declared. Last year, following the Beast from the East snowstorm the Al Manaar Centre yet again helped the local community during these freezing nights by opening their doors and setting up sleeping bags in the main hall for the homeless to spend the night. They also helped in providing warm clothes.

Over the course of time, Inderjeet has his own share of friends, a diverse group of Eastern Europeans, South Asians and even Africans who look out for each other. None of them know what will be there home for the next day and neither of them are aware if they will end up meeting each other later on, but they circle around on the floor ravaging their meals. People tethering on the brink of poverty lines have permeated to the extent of being “normal” often seen as “quirky” when tourists put down pound coins on the national flags chalked up by these people in Central London. But till the time the deeper issues of substance abuse, mental health or even unemployment are not resolved, having outreach sessions or opening up shelter homes serves only as a temporary band-aid to the homeless crisis.

Shelters in West Midlands

Local authorities across the West Midlands are trying to ensure that no one sleeps rough this winter. Working together with partners from the public, private and voluntary sectors in the West Midlands Homelessness Taskforce, councils are trying to help rough sleepers by locating them and support them to access a place of safety. Work has already begun to match the first people with homes for the regional Housing First pilot, which has secured £9.6M from Government and is being led by Birmingham City Council. 

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) is also trying to access severe weather provisions. This includes people whose needs are complex, pet owners, couples, those who have no recourse to public funds, people who may have previously been banned from support services and those with no local connection.

Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, told Asian Voice, “Local authorities in the West Midlands have come together with charities and businesses to agree this Winter Plan for Rough Sleepers, with its commitments to severe weather provision, Housing First, Change into Action and other support.

“There are many dedicated people who work incredibly hard for local authorities and charities throughout the year to help vulnerable people. Over the next few months we will all need to work even harder to support them.”

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