On a tour of the Salma foodbank in Sandwell, West Midlands in the U.K., Imran Hameed shows me a corkboard filled with cards from people they've helped. One has been made by a child: a picture of flowers and a "foodbank" van sitting below a large "Thank you".
What I don't notice, until Imran points it out, is that the card has been made from a paper towel — presumably the only scrap paper available.
It's been seven months since I first caught up with Imran Hameed, co-founder of Birmingham-based community group Bearded Broz. His team of 85 volunteers has since helped feed 8,000 people across England's West Midlands since the start of the year.
Imran, an IT consultant, runs the foodbank from his warehouse in Smethwick. His team also work with the authorities and police on other issues: currently they are supporting people fleeing domestic abuse, helping sex workers by signposting them to support services, and using their IT knowledge to collect information on paedophiles and pass it onto the police.
In his office, which sits in an industrial unit that he uses for both his business and storing food parcels, Imran tells me that people across the U.K. have even started placing online food shopping orders for the organisation and sending them to their unit. "We recently had a delivery with £1,500-worth [~R26,850] of food from Glasgow," Imran says. "That was so touching."
Demand is growing, he tells me. There are increasing numbers of people sleeping rough in the city centre, and hidden homelessness too. A recent HuffPost UK report found an alarming number of young women, many with children, are living in temporary accommodation while they battle a complex council housing system.
That chimes with Imran's experience. Bearded Broz often supports single mothers who find themselves financially overwhelmed by benefit caps and the bedroom tax. "They're having to juggle whether they feed their children or face eviction," says Imran. "These people aren't able to make ends meet — and this is happening quite regularly, it's not an isolated incident." Changes to the U.K. benefit system, mainly Universal Credit, have also resulted in a spike of people using the foodbank, he says.
The volunteers also often meet people with mental illnesses in need of help. "There are people who can't manage their money, or they have drug or alcohol issues," Imran says. "What do you do when you have a 18-year-old with poor mental health who has a problem smoking drugs?" Other organisations might turn these people away, he says. "But because we don't have red tape, we use our hearts instead of our heads."
Bearded Broz operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, providing deliveries to those in need rather than a collection service. Ideally Imran would like local councils to support the organisation. "I would love for the authorities to work with us to make deliveries," he says, before adding that it would be a massive help if they could fund a couple of vans and the manpower to drive them.
The father of two is adamant that he's not running a charity and would never become one because of the "red tape". Bearded Broz refuses to take money, and instead will only accept food, toiletries or gift-card donations. They're also always keen to find new volunteers, especially to deliver food parcels — as it can be hard to find people willing to drive to a callout at three in the morning.
Running a 24-hour service means it's not unheard of for Imran to go on early morning deliveries — in fact, he admits he doesn't get that much sleep. "Thankfully I've got a very understanding wife and two children," he says. "It's a massive juggling act."
Being able to help people "is a lovely feeling", he says. "I would say I'm extremely humbled by the love that we've had from the media and from the people we go to for help. There have been so many tears, so many hugs, so many kisses — it's unbelievable."
A huge part of Imran's motivation is working in memory of his mother. (The Salma foodbank is named after her.) He was just 17 when she died from heart failure, and he went off the rails for a while. It was having children of his own and seeing his wife become a wonderful mother that prompted him to find out more about his own mum.
He asked his dad what his mum had been like and to share stories about the type of person she was. His dad told him that she used to spend most of their holiday in Pakistan sitting outside the hospital, talking to strangers and offering them financial support.
"She had a heart of gold," he reflects. "That's when the penny dropped for me, I thought I'd do something in the name of my mother. Dad is one of the biggest donors to the foodbank as well — we're giving something back to her, we're doing it together."