I recently spent an evening with twenty hearty souls in steady British rain to sleep out in a park to raise awareness about the plight of the homeless Sikhs of Southall.
Actually, there was not much sleeping — it was more of a Hang Out than a Sleep Out and we had pizza and burgers — but the issue wasn’t lost. Finding warm and dry shelter is a challenge for an increasing number of South Asians, mostly Sikh men, in the southwest London neighborhood of Southall.
Lodging isn’t supposed to be a problem. Southall is the center of London’s vast Punjabi community, one of the most significant Little Indias in the world, home to one of the largest gurdwaras outside India, and a cultural nexus that brought the bhangra phenomenon to nightclubs around the globe. It’s also a hardscrabble quarter that, like New York’s Lower East Side, gave immigrants the means to establish themselves in a new land. The community took care of its own and looks back fondly on its achievements.
So it has come as a shock that in 2010 there are about a hundred homeless men, mostly Sikhs but including Sri Lankans and Somalis, sleeping rough in one of London’s proudest immigrant neighborhoods.SWAT, the Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team, is working to alleviate the problem and to call attention to it (it was the sponsor of the sleep out on February 27). The volunteer group was the first to call attention to the plight of the homeless, posted video interviews, in Punjabi, with some of these men on youtube. It has also started a Facebook group, which has attracted over 5,000 followers.
SWAT is collecting money and clothing, working with gurdwaras and other community organizations, providing drug and alcohol counseling, and trying to make other public services available to them. Its volunteers from other parts of London come to Southall regularly to deliver clothing.
But the challenges are complex. In addition to providing basic necessities, SWAT is trying to raise support for people in circumstances that are often considered shameful. The presence of the Sikh homeless runs counter to the narrative of the hardworking self-sufficient immigrant, and discussion of drug and alcohol problems within the community is still taboo.
“People feel that helping the Southall rough sleepers will only further fund drug habits,” says Tina Gahir, one of the organizers of the sleep out and a volunteer with Crisis and Shelter from the Storm, two prominent homelessness organizations in the UK. “For most Indians, charity begins at home. Many send remittances to their village or relatives in India or make donations to a religious cause. We don’t really have a sense of uniting to tackle problems in the UK currently.”
She hopes that community activism among younger people can alleviate some of these problems and promote honest discussion about them.
But some initiatives take time. Our 20-odd crew of Londoners stamped our feet to keep warm, made bathroom runs to a nearby house, drank tea, and enjoyed conversation beneath the sodium-vapor lights of Norwood Green Park. The neighborhood was silent and still, except for the occasional car slowing to see what was going on. The intermittent rain became steady, and we huddled under umbrellas.
We had been expecting about 70 people who had responded to the Facebook invitation, but there is always a challenge in translating online support to offline action. But people came through in the end — to the tune of Â£7,000 to support SWAT.
Let’s hope this is the start of something big on behalf of Southall’s homeless.
Photo by Preston Merchant