M A I N   N E W S

Special to The Tribune
Destitute Punjabis dot London streets
Shyam Bhatia in London

Punjabis who once travelled to London in search of ‘streets paved with gold’ are today among the most acutely deprived citizens of the British capital.They include Sikhs who queue for free food in local gurdwaras and spend the nights huddled in sleeping bags inside telephone boxes or in giant rubbish bins where they have oversize rats for company.

In British English parlance these men (and some women) are known as “rough sleepers, those who have no homes of their own and spend the cold London nights (last month was the coldest December since 1659) in empty garages, along the roads, inside dustbins and anywhere else they think will give them some minimum shelter.

According to one recent estimate there are at least 200 rough sleepers currently trying to survive the cold nights in the London borough of Southall, also known as ‘Little India’, where almost 60,000 local residents are thought to be of Indian, Punjabi origin.

Among them is 56-year-old Pirty Sandhu who told the Evening Standard newspaper, “We get massive rats crawling over us at night and sometimes foxes jump into the bins and we have to chase them out. The place is disgusting but we have nowhere else to go and on freezing nights it’s a roof over our heads to keep us dry before the lie

The scale of the destitution is frightening for a city like London, one of the richest cities in the world, and local welfare and charity groups say there is no simple answer or explanation for the problem. Some of the victims are addicted to drugs, others are not fluent in English and a few with immigration problems are afraid of identifying themselves to the authorities in case they are put on the next plane back home.

According to Randeep Lall, founder of the local Sikh Welfare Awareness Team (SWAT), there were hardly any rough sleepers in Southall two years ago, but the numbers have mushroomed since then.

Lall told The Tribune how he and a handful of friends started SWAT two years ago to try and combat what they believed was a growing problem of drug addiction in Southall. Supported by the Ramgharia gurdwara, which gave them access to free premises, they set up a youth club to educate teenagers about the dangers of drug abuse.

“At the youth club we had some 35 young people and all activities from karate to judo and input from all kinds of agencies, including experts from the Drugs, Alchohol and Addiction Programme (DAP). It was a DAP expert who first alerted Lall and his friends to the plight of an elderly Punjabi spending his nights on the streets of Southall.

“We told him, ‘when we come tomorrow we will give you a sleeping bag, fresh clothes and warm clothes.’ But the next day when we met him he brought along two or three friends, who were similarly homeless and we said we would help them as well. It grew by the day.

Last year we personally looked after 150 of them and there were still another 50 or 60 who felt ashamed and didn’t want to be known. This winter SWAT has so far looked after some 90 homeless men, most of them Sikhs, with still another 60-70 hiding in the background.”

Some support from the homeless has been forthcoming from local gurdwaras, such as the Ramgharia gurdwara, which made premises available for the SWAT youth club. Most of the 20 others offer langar (free food) to all and sundry.

“They need more than that, they need assistance across the board”, explains Lall. “We are proud of being sikhs, but we can’t be that great if we don’t look after our own people.”

His argument is that gurdwaras are in any case obliged to offer langar, but it’s the rest of the support that is not forthcoming. Lall also points out that with some gurdwaras there has been a reluctance to provide langar to those who appear intoxicated. Under a compromise hammered out last year, langar is now dispensed at the gates of gurdwaras to those who appear intoxicated.

More surprising has been the attitude of local politicians. A senior official of the Local Ealing Council, Hitesh Tailor, commented, “It is important to understand the difference between the many in the borough who are sadly without a permanent home and the small minority who actually sleep on the streets.

“All our work in Southall has shown most of those outside at night do have a place that they could go to sleep, albeit not a permanent home. Outreach workers constantly visit areas where there are known problems, but one issue is that many of the people are fearful of being approached by officers, possibly because of concerns they may have about their immigration status.”

An even tougher response has been forthcoming from the local MP, Punjab-born Virendra Sharma, who was quoted as saying, “I have no compassion for these people. Their situation is totally self-inflicted.” 





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