Act: Inspiration

Tackling London’s Homeless Problem one Meal at a Time

December 22, 2017

The Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team (SWAT) began as a youth club in Southall, West London. Founded by Randeep Singh, the aim was to educate young people about the risks and dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. Homelessness was not on the agenda, but in 2008 the SWAT team found someone sleeping rough on the streets. From this one individual, they uncovered a community of more than 200 homeless people living out of sight in Southall. Having uncovered the scale of the problem, Randeep and his team set about solving it with the type of practical dedication that continues to characterise the SWAT project today.

Most of those living on the streets and under the bridges of Southall were illegal immigrants, so SWAT began working with immigration lawyers, the local council, police, faith leaders, churches and drug and alcohol support services to offer tangible help and solutions for the problems they were facing. “My life was pretty much going out, looking for these people,” says Singh, who also runs a chauffeur business and works part time in a hostel. ”We weren’t experts at what we were doing, we just did it.”

The local council stood up and took notice, and SWAT continued to offer hands-on resourceful support to these immigrants, and by 2012 the number of homeless people living in Southall had gone from 200 to around 20. Some were repatriated, some rehoused, some admitted to rehabilitation centres and some hospitalised because of major health issues. SWAT had successfully tackled homelessness in Southall, and gained momentum in the process. The Evening Standard, Sky News and Al Jazeera all documented this rare success story and big businesses began to pledge donations. “I’d noticed a lot of homeless people around the Strand, so one night we came in a SWAT van, parked in a lay by, opened doors and started giving food out.”

The Strand, with Embankment Gardens nearby and Waterloo just across the bridge, is an area that throws London’s homeless problem into sharp relief. Shelter estimates that there are 170,000 people living homeless in London today, either in hostels, temporary accommodation or on the streets. In the borough of Westminster, which The Strand runs through, one in 25 residents are homeless. With the number of people living without a temporary home having risen 134% since 2010 under the Conservative government, has Randeep Singh seen an increase in the people using SWAT’s services? “Yes, definitely. And when we first started we never used to have people who are working coming to [us], but now we do.” SWAT offer regular hot meals to the “entrenched street homeless, working people who can’t afford to eat, people living in hostels, sofa surfers, neglected elderly – we see so many situations.” SWAT started serving hot meals on the Strand every Sunday in 2012, “then Thursday, then Tuesday then Wednesday – then Camden then Reading, Slough, Oxford, and now we’ve got projects in Argentina, Kenya, Delhi.”

“Because we’ve got Sikh in the name, people think we’re a Sikh organisation”, says Singh, but unlike many of the faith groups that feed the homeless in central London, SWAT makes no attempt to preach to the people they serve. “Sikhs are non-missionary; converting people is not what we’re about.” What is central to SWAT’s action is the concept of ‘langar’, introduced by the first Sikh guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji. It is the term used for the common kitchen found in each Sikh temple, where food is served to all visitors, without distinction of faith, religion or background, for free. The langar of the Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar in Punjab, is the biggest free kitchen in the world serving 50,000 – 100,000 meals a day. “The concept of langar is the bread basket of the community,” says Randeep, “you can put money there, you can put food there, you can help serve, you can source, and everything you put in, the less fortunate will come and take.” The practise of langar extends to the preparation of the food – those preparing it, whether it’s family or chefs, are asked to pray while cooking. “Our food is not normal food. It’s blessed food.” Though the philosophy of langar runs through everything SWAT does, they don’t communicate it to the people who come and eat the food. “We don’t need to,” says Singh.

The Wednesday evening that I join the SWAT team on the Strand, I meet Randeep in the neighbouring café prior to the food service, and as we talk various volunteers drift in ahead of the SWAT van’s arrival. By the time it turns up – a repurposed police van painted distinctively in black and white – a large crowd has gathered for the meal. The team jump out, all wearing black bomber jackets that read NISHKAM (selfless) and SWAT, and deftly start setting up crowd barriers and trestle tables for the food distribution.

The Wednesday meal service is led by a SWAT member named Bob – he has his usual team of volunteers with him, as well as a group from the Sikh society at a local university. Tonight’s menu is vegetable biryani, lentil daal, rice and spring rolls. Dessert is huge portions of delicious rice pudding. The meals are served in donated biodegradable containers, and eaten with plastic spoons leftover from the 2012 Olympics. As well as the warm meal, hot drinks are served with a takeaway bag of non-perishables: crisps, biscuits, nuts, granola bars and a yoghurt drink. The group who have assembled for the food are mixed, and the male and female SWAT volunteers, who complete training in dealing with challenging behaviour, treat them with an assured respect and familiarity. “The homeless are very loyal to us, they know they are going to get good quality food, [and] they know we are there from our hearts and that we don’t have an agenda.”

Food is at the heart of what SWAT do, but they go further than just feeding the homeless. They offer sleeping bags and new clothes, and also cooperated with a local Tesco pharmacy to add an ambulance to their fleet that offers flu jabs, along with optical and dental care. SWAT continues to approach the needs of London’s homeless with the resourcefulness and hands-on positivity that empowered them to radically reduce homelessness in Southall. If a homeless client asks them for money to get somewhere, they’ll give them an Oyster card. “One gentleman asked us to help him enrol in a course that would allow him to become a labourer,” says Sanj, one of the regular volunteers, “so we paid for his course and just put it to the back of our mind. Next thing we get a call to tell us that he’s passed, asking where they should send the certificate. On the back of that we got him enrolled in a second course, and got him safety boots and various other things he needed. He’ll be here today.”

Though the problem of homelessness, addiction and destitution is acute and particularly confronting on the Strand, the atmosphere at the SWAT van is one of hope. I’m welcomed warmly and hospitably offered huge portions of food while the team chat with the people they come to serve. The SWAT vans have become a recognisable force across London, with over 400 volunteers delivering an invaluable service to those in need. To many Londoners it might look like SWAT are doing a saint’s job, but Randeep refers to the concept of ‘langar’ again: “I’m not inventing the idea of feeding the homeless, it’s nothing new. It’s all blessings.”

Donate to SWAT here.

Zoe Neilson

Zoe Neilson is a Scottish writer and editor, currently living and working in Amsterdam. Born into a family of foodies, she has lived in Strasbourg, Edinburgh, London, Sydney, and Leeds, before settling in the Netherlands. This nomadic life left her with a deep interest in food cultures and the cross-cultural differences between them. A lifelong urbanite, she is committed to improving our capacity to live and eat sustainably in cities.

Tags: building resilient communities, building resilient food systems, homelessness