Guardians of our Humanity: Feeding the Homeless of Westminster

by Afshin Rohani |
Alone with all that you own.

Alone with all that you own.

There is a growing homeless crisis in central London–whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. We came across the hidden faces amongst the suffering, finding some solace, in a desperate situation.

In recent times the number of those sleeping rough in the UK has increased year-on-year with no sure solution to provide affordable or social housing while the statistics fail to represent this interminable somewhat invisible population.

sikh-swat-london-homeless-team-india.jpg

I spent one winter evening with S.W.A.T the Sikh Welfare & Awareness Team as the squad welcomed the homeless who congregate just off the Strand, Westminster. It's 7:30p a group of Sikh men and women (who appear swiftly like guardians) are setting up shop.

Shortly before I arrived I had a quick dinner at a near by fast casual food chain I didn't think twice, contactless is how I receive most meals, and on-demand.

homeless-westminster-street-portrait.jpg

Near to the site where almost 300 will be fed during the course of one evening I met a man who knows of SWAT's work but does not want any hand-outs. Happy to be his "own boss" and gain whatever he can from the kindness of a passersby - after all he has been doing this for over 20 years.

A few minutes after we speak his dog receives some kind attention from a tall well-dressed women, she gave its owner her last cigarette.

SWAT feels it has a deep moral duty or 'Seva' (selfless-service) to provide free meals and guard those less fortunate through hands-on support, at this site they enlist a small army comprised mainly of city workers turned volunteers. Before the newbies start serving they are trained up in the art of being both hospitable and resourceful.

5.jpg

The concept of Langar is a tradition that encourages all types of people to eat together serving an array of Indian home-cooked dishes to anyone who enters a Sikh house of worship, tonight a makeshift urban-temple presents a selection of wholesome pasta dishes; donated by a local restaurant who were won over by the ethos behind the organisation.

It's not the pots themselves alone that go down well, the volunteers are an integral bridge in understanding the range of voices who identify themselves as displaced city dwellers, offering a frank and honest chat that makes food the vehicle towards a two way street of understanding.

By 8:30p the queue hasn't shown any signs of stopping - and certainly the clothes and mannerisms revealed by those patiently starving in line start to illustrate the extent to which the true demographics are hidden, partially due to the lifestyle associated with having no permanent address.

Luckily there is just enough food and plenty of love to go around, some are eager to interact others feel the need to keep on moving

Luckily there is just enough food and plenty of love to go around, some are eager to interact others feel the need to keep on moving

Not all the people who flock to the scene are veterans, compared to the general population young people are 3x more likely to have experienced homelessness in the last five years. A concrete savvy 20 year-old looks through a bag of unsold premium sandwiches - he examines the sell-by dates.

Feeling the need to remark that the selection is not great–after all young people crave the comfort of labelling the most, its a humbling equaliser.

young-homeless-london-street-food.jpg

As commuters rush along the highstreet, there's an uneasy material unbalance from one fragile extreme to another, yet the prospect of food and friends has brought together for the most part an inkling of what I'd call safeguarding community spirit.

It is hard to humanise people who too easily blend into our built environment, along with this there are increasing attempts to stop them from sleeping outdoors by the local authorities who fear a rising drug problem.

Households containing concealed single occupants aren't reflected among Westminster's possible hundreds, these individuals may appear to be doing fine to the outside world.

We're often so distracted with creating images that detract from our reality, I'm not sure if could see a solution even if I caught a glimpse of it. The problem stares at you daily and I'm generally left feeling immobilised compelled to brush off the guilt.

SWAT serve easily 1,000 meals a week from their humorously themed black combat van that stations itself in and around central London three times a week. They are only scratching the surface of one of the byproducts of our capital's lust for unchecked development.

Just before I leave them at 9:30p a middle-aged gentleman cradling a bright red sleeping bag that he's just received stops and chats to me, I comment that I wish more people would create such social spaces.

He tries to prevent someone from knocking over his cup of tea on the pavement, then having picked up what's left of it looks up with an indelible smile and wishes me a very Merry Christmas.

crisis-homeless-sleeping-rough-london-food-social-housing.jpg
photos+words from Afshin Rohani | support SWAT's work throughout the UK donate