Tom Staples discusses the Midland Langar Seva Society and the steps being taken to help the homeless
The Midland Langar Seva Society (MLS) started in Walsall in 2013. Every weekday around six until seven they drive up, set up their benches, unpack giant pots or containers of food and start giving out portions to whoever wants one. Although the Walsall team is relatively small, operating from the Glebe Centre on Wednesbury Road, MLS has flourished with an ever-increasing UK base – 14 as of yet, including Wolverhampton, Cardiff and Leicester – and having gathered momentum as far as Germany and Bangladesh.
Cook recognised me from a brief chat we’d had the day before and glanced at the handful of people still lining up for food. ‘They’re all gone,’ he says, waving a hand back along the high street, ‘the queue went all the way back there.’ I don’t doubt it. I’m there maybe 15-20 minutes after the rush and people are still trickling in from all directions. Is this what a normal day is like? ‘We provide for around 18 — well, 1,700-1,900 a day.’
One of several supervising members, Cook has been coming out with his team for over three and a half years. I asked if he had noticed any changes over that time. After a moment he shrugged gently and said no, he hadn’t. In retrospect, it was annoyingly vague and a loaded question – but I also get the feeling that Cook is very considerate, not just careful with his words. He’s not interested in politicising or narrativising homelessness and poverty, as I very tactlessly was. That’s not the purpose of Langar Seva. Between answers, he darted around the benches restocking plastic cups and checking on the team, and each time he’d apologise after turning back to our talk, as though he were the one inconveniencing me. Clearly, the moral centre of the whole thing rests on praxis. Cook follows the tenets of his faith but doesn’t lecture. He doesn’t have a podcast, or spew job-interview style speeches; and neither does he try to impress anyone with cold, casual pessimism. None of the team do. They are precise, they get the food out and the people fed. I’ve asked myself: for all the stuff you say on homelessness, who have you fed or made sure doesn’t freeze to death? For all the rhetoric, including what you’re reading now, no one.
Since 2013 MLS’ purpose hasn’t changed: ‘to help those in need around the UK […] providing hot food and drink to those living on the street, schools, safe houses and those on the poverty line.’ Though the movement stems from food provision ‘Langar…in the Sikh religion or in Punjab’ denotes ‘[a] general or common kitchen/canteen where food is served for free.’
The group are continually asking for people to donate blankets and clothing. This isn’t arbitrary good will. As people are losing literally everything they could ever possibly have, calls for more donations carry more urgency than we are used to – definitely more than we seem to appreciate. When I first spoke to Cook I referred to Kane Walker, the young man who’d passed away outside New Street Station in late January. Recalling Walker brought out an immediate sense of deeply-held regret from Cook, an explicit gauge for what all this meant. Handing out free hot meals from ad hoc stations was a modest effort turned successful international operation, but localised, heartfelt humanism remains. To those across the Midlands driving the success of MLS, Walker’s story is the latest acutely painful and close-to-home reminder of what homelessness often entails: isolation and death, both for the many we’ve lost and the many we’re yet to lose.
As with the Glebe Centre in Walsall, support and means for sheltered accommodation are stretched thin. Try as they might, Cook said, ‘there’s not enough beds and not enough people to help.’ He’s not lost hope, and nor should he; more is being done as we speak, particularly in Birmingham. We’ve yet to see what major disruptions our current troubles may realize, however. I wouldn’t be surprised if the trends in relabelling existing expenditure as new funding, or even simply reneging on promised funding altogether, continues regardless of whether we’ve left or not. More so than ever, this is the time for local government to take hold of the reigns and commit itself to reversing the damage many believe to be inflicted by years of austerity – most especially on the few support networks the vulnerable and homeless have ever had. Cuts and restrictions to legal aid eligibility and a chronically understaffed NHS are both contributing factors to the ever-growing population of neglected and disaffected. Reform and improvement both stem from money and incredible national effort, neither of which are directed at people like Kane Walker. It’s likely that it may take more cases like his to fully pry open the eyes of the government to what’s actually happening.
Interestingly, Chief Executive of Birmingham YMCA, Alan Fraser, has raised the call for more comprehensive Safeguarding Adult Reviews (SARs) procedures to be applied to cases of homeless fatalities. It’s definitely virtuous and ambitious, looking to aid the efforts of our local authorities in accounting for and avoiding needless deaths – and I hope he perseveres. Though, honestly, I can’t imagine them fully taking on such a mammoth and potentially incriminating task; especially one that, in any case, might only lead to time, money and manpower being spent producing half-hearted and inconclusive verdicts. Sadly, it’s hard to believe executives of the state will accept supplemental responsibility, if any at all, during our current crises (but more on that later).
Until reform, if it ever comes, we are blessed – deservedly or not – with the people who curtail complete tragedy by committing themselves to those who very obviously and desperately need them. We should call organisations like MLS street mitigators. It’s exactly what they are. Not to lump them together, though: MLS has a distinct personality attuned to its guiding principles, set down as they were by their founding Guru, Guru Nanak. Consider again the destabilising events unfolding at the macro levels of our body politic: Brexit, possible snap-elections, resignations and departmental turnover. Forget whatever side you stand on, look around: see how they’ve distracted us from the micro-tragedies having accumulated while the whole country looks elsewhere. The love and resolve to beat back the tide – practically, communally – is the upshot of street mitigation.
I hope I’m not giving the impression MLS is concerned solely with the extreme cases. Before I left I asked Cook about the many people that came for food and were ostensibly not homeless. ‘We see the people dressed nicely that come over, yeah. And we see families.’ He holds his hands out: ‘We don’t care. Some people just can’t afford to eat, man.’ He’s right again, I look around and I see children playing between the benches as parents get food for the night. But before any questions on food banks could take shape, I thought: ‘this feels like a communal barbeque.’ It smells good here, and people are talking to each other and taking their time; summer isn’t too far away, it feels warmer, and today the sun had stayed out noticeably longer. 20 yards down the way music rolls out into the street from an open pub window and stood outside people are animated and chatting and singing along to whoever walks by; and the MLS volunteers at the benches, benign hands under the Khanda emblazoned on their backs, are laughing at something someone in the queue had said. We’re a long way off and in very deep, but we have our mitigators.