…This is a great question that we have thought about many times on our team. Offering food is one way with an immediate need for sustenance, a daily need most of us take for granted. But perhaps one of the best ways is to ask a homeless person what they need the most help with. It might be access to food, it might be hygiene related, it might be a safe place to shelter, it might be access to healthcare. One of the best things one can do is to connect homeless people with services and organizations that serve their diverse acute needs.
As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Meetan Kaur, Associate Director, UNITED SIKHS.
UNITED SIKHS is a U.N. affiliated international non-profit, non-governmental organization focused on humanitarian relief, human development, and advocacy aimed at empowering those in need, especially disadvantaged and minority communities across the world.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?
I grew up in a small town in western India, with 14 people in the same household. My family routinely took me to the Gurdwara (Sikh house of worship), where hundreds of homeless men, women, and children came twice a week to eat langar, a community meal prepared and served for free to all the visitors, without distinction of religion, caste, gender, economic status, or ethnicity. It always amazed me that these people walked anywhere from an hour to three hours for just a meal at the Gurdwara. Some of my best childhood memories involve volunteering in the Gurdwara kitchen and serving langar to those who needed it most.
Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?
My paternal grandparents had three sons; my father is the oldest. I was blessed with two very kind uncles steeped in spiritual pursuits. My family had a catering business and it was common to have sacks of veggies and other raw materials around the house for next morning’s catering order. One night, I got out of bed for a glass of water and I saw one of my uncles carefully opening up very tightly wrapped plastic wraps around vegetables and placing each bell pepper, broccoli head, lettuce, and other veggies out on the dining table with the fan on. When I asked him why he was doing that when the items were going to be transported to the catering site within a couple of hours, he said he couldn’t see them suffocating like this — they needed to breathe free. The love and care with which he treated our vegetables had a huge impact on me and showed me how one must truly live and care for every other living being. His demeanor has always been so godly, and his aura so calming, that it became apparent to me what my purpose in life should be. Life can get stifling at times, and all it takes is a little TLC from another person to put things into perspective and set one free. Each homeless individual I see reminds me of this experience; every time I see them, I feel this sharp desire to help them improve their lives and breathe free.
Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?
The homeless crisis has a complicated and long narrative. Homelessness has existed from the early days of the union. There are institutional and systemic forces that have led to and exacerbated the problem in cities across America. Natural, human-made disasters and wars create disturbances that propel many into homelessness. There is not a single reason that leads to homelessness. In the last fifty years, a confluence of key factors involves the lack of mental health infrastructure, a widening income disparity tied to rise in poverty, and an epidemic of drug addiction and racial inequities.
For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?
Even in the scenario you have described above there are varying implicit forces that create vulnerabilities towards homelessness. A young person who is LGBTQ or trans has increased risks, despite the stated factors being in place. An African American person with a heritage of slavery and segregation leading to lack of generational wealth faces added risks. A young woman has to face the potential of gender-based bias and violence pervasive in our culture, which adds to her risk. I share these to emphasize that not every young healthy person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, and a community support system is on equal standing.
For example, a young person with all of these things might be a first-generation immigrant with a hard-working family where both parents work low-paid jobs. The family lives on paycheck to paycheck. They have extended family in similar circumstances. They go to church and have a good community support system. A parent or a child falls sick and is diagnosed with a medical condition that requires extended care. Medical expenses over time push the family out of their rented home into a situation where the family is living out of their car. The young person takes a second job to pay for the medical bills. They park their vehicle every night at a local church. The church is gracious enough to let them use their facilities for a shower. The family is homeless and lives in this mode for months and years.
A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?
Implicit in this question is the assumption that a city with cheap housing will solve the problem of homelessness. This is where the shallowness of the word “homeless” is laid bare. Homelessness is not only the loss of four walls and a roof with amenities. Homelessness is tied to the concept of family, a source of income, a community as a support network, access to basic healthcare, access to funds for a rainy day. Small cities with cheaper housing at times lack some of the public resources and funds to take care of those who have fallen on difficult financial circumstances.
To solve homelessness we have to try and solve the source of all of these challenges. Just giving a homeless person a structure to live in is not going to solve the underlying problems. Housing is a good and necessary start but it has to be structured around resources to get people out of temporary housing for a healthy future.
If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?
This is a great question that we have thought about many times on our team. Offering food is one way with an immediate need for sustenance, a daily need most of us take for granted. But perhaps one of the best ways is to ask a homeless person what they need the most help with. It might be access to food, it might be hygiene related, it might be a safe place to shelter, it might be access to healthcare. One of the best things one can do is to connect homeless people with services and organizations that serve their diverse acute needs.
What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?
There are two different scenarios here. If someone wants money for gas, one is to presume they have a vehicle. You can pay for gas yourself rather than giving cash to the person. That makes sure the money goes towards the need for gas.
If someone asks for rent money, we are typically looking at a significantly larger amount. It is difficult to know if the money you were to give will go towards rent. Doing this transaction for a homeless person yourself is complicated.
The best response is to connect the homeless person with social services and other agencies/organizations that offer rental and other amenity assistance to homeless persons.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?
Our work with homeless communities across the nation is focused at the moment on the most immediate needs of cooked meals, dry grocery supplies, hygiene products, water, clothes, and PPE. We are addressing the most basic human needs at the moment. As the pandemic eases, we are planning to create a mechanism to connect homeless communities we serve with social services and other institutions that can serve the long-term impact needs.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?
The pandemic has highlighted the inequalities and disparities in our society in a way nothing else has in the recent past. Food insecurity is something many Americans do not worry about, but in the midst and immediate aftermath of the pandemic, many Americans got acquainted to a spectrum of food insecurity. The most vulnerable always knew this insecurity up close. Now the homeless are even more vulnerable to even higher levels of food insecurity.
As a hopeful sign, Americans have donated resources, food, and their time to respond to issues of food insecurity. We have seen volunteers and donors step up to serve homeless communities in numbers we have not seen before. There is an elevated level of collective empathy created in this global public health crisis.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
Many of the individuals we serve have mental health issues, and sometimes when we are there serving meals some individuals stop by and hurl insults at us, pass racist remarks, get violent, and start throwing food at our truck. Every time when this happens, inevitably another homeless person quickly jumps to our defense, apologizes for what happened, and tells us just how much we are appreciated by everyone we serve. The love and blessings we garner out of this service are so uplifting and rewarding that they completely outweigh the risks we face in situations like these.
Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?
An immigrant woman in Los Angeles became homeless after her husband abandoned her. By the time we found her, she had had two strokes and was partially paralyzed because of the abuse she had been exposed to. UNITED SIKHS has been serving her cooked meals and groceries for a few months now. She considers us her family.
Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?
Job insecurity is one of the major root causes of homelessness and has to be tackled for any real solution to this problem. We need a new societal infrastructure to support mental health like we support physical health, addressing prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and research for better wellness strategies. Income disparity is perhaps one of the leading sources of creating conditions for homelessness. It is also one of the most challenging problems in our society, which is defined around a capitalistic financial system that rewards continuous wealth accumulation. In our economy wealth begets wealth. The wealthy have much better statistical odds to become wealthier. Our culture rewards and aspires towards exponential wealth accumulation which is rationally and morally inequitable and non-inclusive.
If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
Access to Mental Health Resources as basic human right.
A version of Universal Basic income.
Housing First as a means of getting homeless people off the streets to set up a foundation for them to lead healthy & independent lives.
I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?
I come from a heritage, the Sikh way of life, which has a short history full of persecution at the hands of tyrants. This path is centered on love, compassion, and serving humanity. Suffering and Happiness are part of this journey. The goal is to merge with the universal creator energy we call “Ik Onkaar.” This heritage keeps me going.
Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?
I believe we can get closer to solving this challenge.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- You cannot control the outcome of your efforts; you can only try and hope for the best. When we started our local efforts to help the homeless communities in LA and Orange County, we started very small. There were times when we had to scramble for donations and support to sustain the efforts. With God’s grace, we continued our operations despite all odds, even through the pandemic. To date, we have served over 100,000 meals to homeless communities. Today, we do not have to worry about how we’ll sustain the program.
- Just because you believe in the cause does not mean that people around you do too. The only way you can gather support for your cause is by doing what you’re doing, no matter what. People now see the difference we’re making; donations and volunteers come as a result of our passion to bring a positive change in the lives of people living without a shelter.
- Support will come from where you least expect it. Do not expect friends and family to support you in your mission as a default. Almost always, support came from people I least expected to help with the cause. Social media and WhatsApp groups play a very crucial role in spreading the word about your service and like-minded people will join you when they find out!
- Your phone will never stop ringing! Being in this field essentially makes you a public servant without an elected office. People expect you to be at their service 24/7; they come to you with a variety of problems and issues and you’ll be surprised how much of it you can resolve by just playing the role of a navigator.
- You can only help those that want to be helped. Homelessness is more complicated than one can imagine. Some people get used to this way of life and do not necessarily want to be helped. It’s best to start with the people who are looking for change and are willing to work towards it. My job is to spot opportunities during my encounters with this community to ascertain even the slightest willingness to start the dialog for change.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
A movement to serve not only those you feel compassion for, but also those you feel contempt for. See the oneness of humanity.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Other than the Lord, no one can kill or rejuvenate. O mind, do not be anxious — remain fearless. — Guru Granth Sahib Ji (The spiritual guide for the Sikh path)
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Michelle Obama. An article put it very aptly: “She would’ve been impactful simply by being in the White House, the first African-American First Lady. But she also used her position of power to improve the world around her.”
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!