Crisis Volunteer Andrea sat down for a conversation with one of our funders, Sonal Sachdev Patel, whose family foundation supports the work of ending homelessness in our lifetime. God My Silent Partner Foundation (GMSP) was founded by her parents Ramesh and Pratibha Sachdev.
Andrea: Could you tell us about your family foundation, God My Silent Partner (GMSP)?
Sonal: I’ll tell you a little bit of our story and I’d love to hear your story as well.
I feel like our story really shapes the way that we see the world and how we approach it. My parents are Gujarati and were born in East Africa. When my father was 19 he came to London to build a better life for the rest of the family. His father borrowed money to buy his ticket and he was the first of 13 siblings to come to the UK. My dad did all sorts of jobs such as selling ice cream, stacking books and washing dishes before he qualified as an accountant. He went on to marry my mother and she came to London.
My Mother was always passionate about working with children but she also felt for the elderly too. In our culture we live multi-generationally and that way the elderly are looked after. Once my brother, sister and I were all in school she had some more time available, and she opened a nursing home in the 1980s. She started with the desire to just care for the elderly. She used to take us there after school to visit the residents and she would plan entertainment and improvements to the home. Her focus was to create a loving environment for the elderly but she ended up building this really thriving business with a chain of nursing homes. My father also joined her and together they supported many elderly people with the same family values with which we were raised. They had 10,000 employees at one point.
After they sold the business, my parents wanted to use the proceeds to help others. Our work at GMSP has grown to meet their ambition to spend down their wealth in their lifetime. The Foundation is led by our family values of love, trust and humility, and keeps the person at the centre of all we do. It’s all part of this feeling and belief we have in shared humanity – that we’re all united by the same spark in each of us – even if we have different experiences.
Andrea: Thank you for sharing your story with us. You said you wanted to hear a bit about mine; my grandad’s Indian and my grandma is Black African. My grandma, like all of my grandparents, came to this country to work for the NHS. It was all to do with the health service and building back the country after the Second World War.
I’m an advocate now, so I support the gypsy Roma traveller community, working with people who are excluded from services through an organisation called Paradigm. I also volunteer with Crisis and do Peer Research and voluntary work during Crisis at Christmas.
I’m a recovering alcoholic, so I’ve been sober almost eight years so. I’m now a better person in myself, and a better parent to my daughter. Volunteering with Crisis supported me in my recovery – I wanted to stop but I just didn’t know how. At the time, I was in the first stages of going to AA meetings and working with people experiencing homelessness and seeing that people were going through different situations, but they were still going through it even though they didn’t have a home. And that kept me going and yes, I’m still here after eight years.
As a volunteer at Crisis at Christmas, I feel like people choose to volunteer and give up their time because they want to end homelessness. When it comes to Members, we’re pretty much the only people that smile at them and actually listen to them.
Andrea: Tell us how you heard about Crisis?
Sonal: My mum was the one who got involved with Crisis at Christmas when she came to this country. She used to get an allowance of housekeeping money (the gender equality discussion in that is for another day!), but always had this promise and habit to herself that she would give 10% of whatever she had. So, she would give it to the Crisis at Christmas appeal. She told me about her experience, she said people were cold and of course that made her feel empathy thinking about how someone could survive on the street.
When GMSP looked into Crisis, we saw it was so much more than just supporting rough sleepers, actually Crisis is looking at systemic issues and we really appreciated the advocacy role that you play. Independence from government funding allows you to be stronger and unbiased in your advocacy, which is powerful. We know that we need policy change, we know that homelessness is a total failure of our society, on multiple levels. It’s shocking that we live in what we think is a civilised society and we see people sleeping on the street.
Organisations like Crisis are vital to foundations like ours. We trust organisations who are there on the ground, and who have the time and the focus to centre the voices of the homeless themselves and work across sectors to find a solution for the problem of homelessness. It is a multi-issue problem and needs a multi-pronged solution.
Andrea: What do you think people could do to help play a part in ending homelessness?
Sonal: I think people can change their mindset; there’s still a feeling that people experiencing homelessness have done something or made some mistake and I think that’s really wrong. Many of us have such a broad safety net that if I lost all my income, for example, I would have family members or friends I could go and speak to who’d help me. A lot of people don’t have that.
There are other ways to support if you can’t donate, you can volunteer; or just help by treating someone with dignity. I struggle with the fact that people are sitting on the street and as a society we just walk past like they are invisible. I think even if you haven’t got money to give, you can still find a way to remove that indignity.
Andrea: What do you think the biggest misconception about homelessness is?
Sonal: I think there’s some sort of blame assigned to people. And I think there are a lot of people who are homeless who are not on the street, they may be living on someone’s sofa. We (GMSP) also work with Black and minoritised communities and organisations who support women who have experienced violence, and we often hear that a lot of those women don’t end up on the street but that doesn’t mean that they’re not suffering from homelessness.
Andrea: Do you see a lot of women from those communities sofa surfing?
Sonal: Yes, it’s awful, they’ve got children, and often multiple issues including mental health challenges, so there are many factors affecting their circumstance. For example, they may have experienced trauma and don’t know how to navigate that.
Andrea: What would you and GMSP like to achieve through your philanthropy?
Sonal: We’re a relatively small family foundation, but we’re clear that we want to make the world a little better every day through our work, and the incredible work of our partners like Crisis. That means less inequality and fewer people excluded from society – whether it be because of homelessness or other issues where they’re pushed to the margins of society. There are these common threads, this systemic racism that sits in our society and allows certain people – predominantly Black people and other minoritised groups – to constantly be marginalised. We want to do what we can to redress this.
Andrea: Yes, I agree with you on that; through my work with the Roma traveller communities I see how they are completely excluded from everything. I have seen them experience a level of racism that I’ve never experienced in my life before. They just don’t have a voice, and when they do, they’re criminalised.
Sonal: I think everyone – especially funders – need to work on themselves and look inside and think about what prejudices we hold. After the shocking murder of George Floyd a lot of people suddenly spoke up about racial injustice; but these issues were not new. They have always been there but many of us chose not to see them. There are a lot of hard questions funders need to ask themselves. Maybe I have an unconscious bias but I didn’t realise. For me with the gypsy Roma community you’ve talked about today, it’s just a lack of knowledge. But you’ve inspired me to go and understand more about their community.
Andrea: Thank you. What would you say to someone considering making a philanthropic gift to Crisis?
Sonal: That they should do it. And fund unrestricted as well. But also use it as an opportunity to get to know the problem. For us, having a relationship with Crisis helps us to understand homelessness better. We don’t know what issues people are facing. I think particularly now with the cost-of-living crisis, philanthropy really has to step up. There are a lot of foundations that are sitting on massive endowments and they’re giving away only a small percentage. What are they waiting for? I would say fund and use the opportunity to learn and understand more.
Andrea: What does Crisis mean to you?
Sonal: I just think it’s really good that there are organisations that support people when they have nowhere else to turn to. It also shows how much we need charities in our society. I think we saw in the pandemic that it was charitable organisations who were responding quickly and creatively, and reaching the most marginalised groups.
Andrea: Thank you for giving us your time today. It’s been amazing hearing about the work you’ve been doing; how it started and where you are today. I think it’s absolutely brilliant so thank you for sharing that.
Sonal: Thank you. Your story is really inspiring and I really admire how hard you have worked to become addiction free and how you now give your time to support others. Your voice must be very powerful for those struggling with addiction as they can see you got through the other side. More power to you.