A heart for the helpless – Shamit Patel of Homeless of Nairobi

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Distribution of food for Homeless of Nairobi. Image from Homeless of Nairobi Facebook page https://web.facebook.com/homelessofnairobi/photos/pb.1499976583577301.-2207520000.1460696400./1685552635019694/?type=3&theater

Sometimes you meet people who just give you a whole different perspective on life. They change a little part of the way you see the world and shift the direction of your worldview. This is the only way I can describe my interview/conversation with Sham Patel who founded Homeless of Nairobi, a virtual community for the Homeless people of Nairobi which shares their stories.

Shamit Patel. Image from http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/evewoman/article/2000195423/shamit-patel-giving-the-homeless-a-decent-shot-in-life

Tell us something about yourself – what’s your background?

I grew up in your average middle class family. I studied English Literature and Electronic Creative Literature at Liverpool University. The funny thing is I had to leave my country, Kenya, to get out of my sheltered life. When you go out there you realize life is hard and bigger than you. I had to analyze my life. I came back home and started a business called Mairobi that used creative arts to spread different messages.

Would you ever go back to the U.K or live abroad?

No. I can’t live outside of Kenya. I mean I can go out for a short period of time but it’s home. There are so many things wrong with our country that frustrates me every single day but it doesn’t stop me from loving it any less. I still want to help it grow and build it.

So where did Homeless of Nairobi come in at this point?

2014. There were these two homeless guys I would see quite often. So one day as I was going to the gym I decided that I should just speak to them and find out something about their lives. I bought them bread and some cookies. The funny thing is they opened the packet and offered me the first cookie. I took it surprised that these guys who were less fortunate than I am actually did something like that.

After that I began visiting them more often and bringing them bread and whatever I could. I also started chatting with them and listening. They told me incredibly heartbreaking stories. One of them told me about how he had watched his wife being murdered in front of him during post-election violence and how he had lost his children. He walked from Molo to Nairobi seeking refuge which he never got so he landed, surviving on the streets of Nairobi.

It hit me then that these people actually have lives, families, and stories that need to be told. I decided I would just start taking pictures of them and share their stories, with their permission because something needed to be done.

Distribution of food for Homeless of Nairobi. Image from Homeless of Nairobi Facebook page https://web.facebook.com/homelessofnairobi/photos/pb.1499976583577301.-2207520000.1460696400./1685552635019694/?type=3&theater
Distribution of food for Homeless of Nairobi. Image from Homeless of Nairobi Facebook page https://web.facebook.com/homelessofnairobi/photos/pb.1499976583577301.-2207520000.1460696400./1685552635019694/?type=3&theater

How did it grow?

Initially it started as just that, taking pictures and sharing stories. After a while people started noticing and began to ask, “How can we help?” The social media forums started building a following, and people started asking what they can give and so on. It was great but my intention is to make Homeless of Nairobi a community. To make it a place where we can find ways to help together.

It starts with the simplest of decisions to make a difference. In December of 2014 I decided I wanted to make sandwiches for the Homeless people for Christmas. I just wanted to make it a little extra special for them. On my twitter account I shared my idea and asked if anyone wanted to help out and in that one night over Ksh 100,000 came in! My phone kept buzzing the whole evening with M-Pesa messages, and it was incredible. We went out and we fed 500 people!

Since then I have met a number of people here and there who are incredible, such as my friend Clifford who used to feed about eighty people a day. He is a headmaster so his heart’s desire was getting the children of the streets and back into school.

Speaking of children, tell me a little more about the children’s home?

It’s pretty nice. We have about thirty kids and a few house mothers whom we don’t even pay. That is the cool thing about it everyone does things voluntarily. We try to avoid administration so we don’t lose what it’s about.

What are some of the struggles you face in that area?

Well for one, we just saw a need and tried to fill it. I didn’t know we needed permits or what kind for our children’s home until just recently when we were threatened by officials for not having the proper documents. That is hard because instead of being shown how to go about it the right way, they give you a lecture and basically leave you to handle it on your own.

Secondly the boys personally have struggles coming from such a different background. Because of this it would be a lie to say, we haven’t had a few struggles where they try to go back to the life they lived because of the mindset they might have.

Another one is critics everywhere. People criticize often and much, not knowing how much work goes on behind the scenes. People tend to remember the negatives more than the positives when it comes to the online world.

What is the one statement he (Sham) repeated that will stick with me from this interview?

Homeless people in Nairobi have become like wallpaper. You can see them but it has become so normal that you don’t even notice them.

If you would like to support homeless of Nairobi you can get in touch with Sham at @just_sham_it or contact them on Facebook.

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