“Even though this happened nearly 5 years ago, it is still fresh in our minds. It fuels us to keep doing what we do," says the couple who spend nearly Rs 4,500 every week to feed Chennai's homeless.
Johnson and Shareen Joshua were returning home after a hearty meal at a restaurant when they saw an old man begging for food near the Velachery Railway Station in Chennai.
The couple approached him and found out that he had been starving for several days. Luckily, they had asked the restaurant to pack a portion of their meal and handed over the parcel to him.
For the next few days, they crossed paths with the old man several times. They found out that his name was Chinnappan, and gave him food whenever possible.
This continued, till one day, not too long after they had first met Chinnappan, a shopkeeper informed them of his passing.
He had fainted, and after being inspected by a nurse who was passing by, was declared dead.
Chinnappan’s death was the catalyst for Johnson and Shareen to do something to ensure that no one like him ever went hungry.
“Even though this happened nearly 5 years ago, it is still fresh in our minds. It fuels us to keep doing what we do,” Shareen tells The Better India. “I always aspired to be of service to the needy, but this particular incident made us follow the principle as our lifestyle,” she adds.
Using contributions from their friends and extended family, Shareen and Johnson established ‘Feed of Love,’ a not-for-profit organisation through which they feed over 70 homeless people in Chennai every day.
India has over 4 lakh beggars, and several states, including Tamil Nadu, have passed an anti-beggary legislation. The act, aimed at the ‘prevention of begging’ finds ‘vagrants’ punishable by fine or imprisonment by police officers without a warrant.
While the controversial act portrays beggars as criminals, an effective solution to their poverty is yet to be found, and very few competent programmes exist for their rehabilitation.
This is where initiatives, like the one started by the Joshuas, are proving to be a respite.
“We are both from Chennai and are full-time social workers,” Johnson tells TBI. “It costs us about Rs 4,000-4,500 per week to cook and distribute the meal packages, and we manage our expenses thanks to the singing classes that Shareen takes at home and schools. Our family and friends also help us out, and even though we only provide one meal a day to over 70 people, this is a satisfying cause,” he stresses.
The couple use their kitchen to prepare the food. Although they say that it is too small, they manage, nonetheless.
Their job is not easy. A 2018 survey found out that of the 9000 homeless people found in Chennai, only 10% were beggars. So, the couple has to carefully examine the homeless people in their locality, and separate the ones who genuinely have no money, from those who can work but choose not to.
So how do they do this?
“We take a census of a particular zone in Chennai, sometimes staying overnight to check whether the people are genuinely homeless. Once we confirm this, we approach them with our cause. Not everyone is willing to accept help, but we persevere. Our focus is to help the elderly who cannot work at their age,” says Johnson.
The couple does not claim to completely change the lives of the people they are helping. Instead, their focus is to help them stay healthy so that they don’t starve to death.
Their approach is rather simple. In the beginning, they identify a group of 70 people, and work with them for 6-18 months. Gradually, after they manage to build trust and securing a bond, they convince them to shift to a government shelter.
“What we do is just a drop in the ocean, but we are dreaming big.
When we saw how homeless people need our help, we could not stop ourselves from extending our services to them. And so, every day from Monday to Friday, we set out with packages of hot meals and distribute them in our pre-decided area,” Shareen tells us.
She also shares that for the time being, they are helped by close friends and well-wishers and try to manage with that. While some months are more stressful in terms of finances than others, they soldier on and try their best.
“We also have an internship programme for volunteers, but we have observed an inconsistency in the time that they can offer here,” Shareen explains.
Help in terms of finance, raw materials like rice, oil, spices etc., or volunteering, is always welcome, and you can contact the Joshuas by calling +918939462648.
If you, too, wish to help the needy but don’t know where to start, volunteering with Feed of Love could be a great option.
After all, what can be more satisfying than feeding those who have been living on an empty stomach for days on end?
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)