Southall Homeless: Part 1

September 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

Southall, often referred to as Little India, keeps itself to itself. Scandals rarely happen in this culturally congested West London district; although on this occasion, the temples are teeming with gossip.

I met Randeep, the founder of SWAT, Sikh Welfare Awareness Team, in a Sikh Temple just off the broadway. We left together after receiving a clumsy helping of parshad from an elderly sevadar. Just opposite the temple I was led down an alleyway where I was to have my first realisation of the conditions of the Southall homeless. We reached the end of the alleyway, where we came across a yellowing, hole infested mattress. As we surveyed the sleeping quarters, a rat literally crawled out of one of the holes in the mattress and scurried off. I registered from their squeaking that there were in fact rats everywhere.

It’s surprising to think that a homeless man can be living right outside this Sikh Temple.

We headed onto the broadway to meet a representative of London Citizens, Marzena. We sat down in Himani’s and chatted before steaming cups of masala chai and vegetable samosas, while impatient drivers exercised their horns on the broadway behind us.

Randeep felt that we needed to see the situation for ourselves, so we jumped into the SWAT van to visit some of the common homeless hangouts. We stopped outside a car park and I understood Randeep’s earlier comment: ‘They say the SWAT van is like an ice cream van for the homeless’. Seven or eight Sikh men approached the van and Randeep quickly began dishing out duvets and clothes: ‘kise ne rajai laenee?’ the men took everything eagerly, and it was heartbreaking to see how excitable they had become, hurriedly pulling on socks and ill-fitting jackets, surveying themselves delightedly in their reflections on the side of the van. ‘Satsriakaal Penji!’ one shouted to me as he left, a grin on his face. Marzena was asking me how I felt about the issue and I mentioned the comment the man had made upon leaving; he had called me sister. I tried to explain how difficult it is to comprehend Sikhs being homeless but it barely made sense in my own mind.

We smelled the next camp before we saw it. Under the bridge were manky mattresses and duvets that reeked of filth.

‘Izzat’ is an important word for Indians. It means honour, something that is central to the way many Indians conduct their lives. As I listened to Randeep telling us the sad story of a homeless man who had broken down into tears over the death of his mother and begged for money, I couldn’t help thinking about this word, izzat. The man had apparently been fibbing about the death of his mother and in fact needed money to fuel his heroin addiction, which made my feelings stronger. He had no izzat left; the agent had stripped it from him, along with his money and his dignity.

Apologies if you find this post offensive or disrespectful in any way; my intention is only to raise awareness of a problem that I feel is being brushed under the carpet.

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