Den tråkiga nyheten har nått oss att Robert Smith är död. Jag lärde känna Robert när jag och Crystal arbetade som frivilliga med Västerås Soppkök som Robert hade startat. 2014 gjorde jag en intervju med honom som nu inte finns på nätet längre så jag tänkte det vore ett bra sätt att komma ihåg Robert att publicera intervju igen.
For me this was always going to be a marathon
Robert Smith is originally from the United Kingdom but since 1997 he calls Västerås his home. With a few short intermissions, Robert has worked to make the situation better for the homeless in Västerås for going on 20 years. He was voted the Västerås Vardagshjälte in 2014, and has an interesting story to tell, both about his life so far as well as the future. We spoke with Robert at Intiman, the location where he currently runs the Västerås Soup Kitchen.
Robert, how did you start working with the homeless?
I had been a heroin addict in England for years, many years. And part of an addiction is, at some point if you’re an addict you will be homeless. That’s just the nature of the beast. My addiction was quite bad. I had been a heroin addict for over 20 years and it got really bad. I was married with three children and my wife was not a user, she was clean and if it hadn’t been for her we would not be sitting here talking now. She literally kept me alive, she’s an amazing lady. But if you keep piling something onto someone’s back, eventually the back will break.
I had a good doctor who said she thought I should go to rehab, which was the farthest from my mind. Addiction is like, if you just take away the drugs, all you are doing is leaving a hole. Unless you fill that hole, you haven’t really done much. Anyway I went back into the streets and carried on and after three months after getting clean I was even worse. It was extraordinary. My doctor called me in again and told me I would be dead in six months, this can’t go on. In Sweden you have this thing called LVM where they forcibly put you into hospital. They said if you don’t volunteer we will put an LVM on you. This was in the mid-80s in England and it was not easy getting into rehab so I am thinking it will be six months or more before I get in. But she calls me and says we have an appointment for you on Monday at this Christian rehab. So I played along and went to this place in Berkshire in England and they said they would give me a bed. Again I thought it would be in six month’s time or something and I wasn’t going into rehab with Christmas around the corner. But they said if you turn up Monday the bed is yours. I left and something remarkable happened. I mean, the only thing I can use as an explanation of what happened is God. I don’t know what happened, I didn’t have some divine revelation or some magical moment but on the train on the way home the light went off in my head. Something happened and for some bizarre reason I thought to myself you’re coming on Monday. So off I went on Monday.
This rehab was a 12-month program. No one had ever done it in 12 months, everyone had been there in 15 months, 2 years or whatever. Anyway I finished the program and we decided we would move the family down from London and I set out to look at what I was going to do with my life. I couldn’t be a builder anymore so I decided to go in a completely different direction and apply to university to study out of all things agriculture. So I did that and at the same time I was working at this amazing place where you came out in the morning, came through the gates and unfolding in front of you was this most amazing countryside. At the bottom of the picture was the river Themes running through it. It was just an extraordinary place to work and to realise what a wonderful planet we live on.
Then what happened?
Then one day, my wife dropped me off and I had a sort of revaluation, I stopped and looked at this view and I sat down and started to think about how much my life had changed. And that’s when I realised that there was something else involved in this and from there on it just exploded for me. I was like there’s a plan for me and I just go with it.
Even though I was married with children I was still really lonely. I went from the black sheep to where I was the flavour of the month. Everyone wanted a piece of Robert. This is where you have to be careful. I wasn’t good enough then so why am I good enough now? You have to believe that there will be people around you that will help you and say that might not be a good idea, Robert, or don’t agree to do that, Robert. I had some of those people but no enough. I was doing talks at churches and universities and there’s this English woman called Jackie Pullinger who in the 60s woke up one morning, even though she was just 18, and decided that she would work with homeless, addicts and prostitutes in Hong Kong. And everyone involved in homeless and addicts know about her. So anyway, a friend of mine who is a pastor rang me on a Saturday morning and said what are you doing tonight. I said I don’t know, why? He said Jackie Pullinger is in the UK for a weekend and she’s heard about what you’re doing and she’d like to meet you. I said ok and I went to this hotel in Victoria, sat down at a dining table, she had three people with her, I had my wife. Within 30 seconds of meeting her, she said I want you on my team in Hong Kong.
The furthest I had been from London was Newcastle. Now this woman was asking me to go to Hong Kong. But it’s always been a part of my character to not analyse everything so I said ”Yeah, we’ll do that”. So we went to Hong Kong. And that’s the saddest part of all this was that that’s when my marriage to this remarkable woman was undone. She had lost me for the whole amount of time that we were married and then she got me back and then I was taken away again and she found that really difficult to handle. And I always go on my instinct because if I don’t it goes wrong. I was charging around the world but she disappeared behind me in a cloud of smoke. After about two weeks in Hong Kong, which were remarkable, she had had enough, I want to go back to the UK. So there’s your ticket, see you later. Not in an arrogant, blaze way but I am so deeply involved in what I am doing so I am like a kid in a sweet shop. These guys were gang members, ruthless, but we connected.
Do you think that has to do with your own experience with addiction? That you connect easier with them?
I think that helps in practical ways but no, I’ve seen people with drug experience go into situations like that and it was a disaster. I think it’s my enthusiasm. If someone says I think we should try this, but what if? I will say well have you tried it? No, not yet. Then let’s try it.
Most of the time, if you’re an optimist and you give that off to people they pick it up in a really positive way. I don’t walk around with rose-tinted glasses, I see things as clearly as you do but from another angle. Hong Kong was just off the wall.
It was all part of what I am doing today. My journey up to this point has been extraordinary. Like the series of events in the last few weeks with this Västerås hero thing. Wow! What is that about? That is extraordinary. That this average size Swedish town chose me.
How did you end up in Västerås?
I had been working in other countries, like Hong Kong, doing voluntary work with mainly with people with problems: homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution. And I had got involved with that and the way I would fund it was to go back to the UK and do work in the building industry and save some money to enable me to again go back and do some more voluntary work. And one of those time when I was working in the UK I was staying in a YMCA and one night this woman with a child appeared and we connected pretty much from the very beginning and she was Swedish and had just come out of a failed relationship and she had this four year old daughter. We were together from pretty much within a week. And when you’re in a relationship in the beginning you don’t have this great vision of where it’s going. You just get together with someone and it might be for a week or it might be forever. So we decided that we would move into an apartment in London so the trips around the world was put on hold.
But in the short time I had been in London then I had this theory about whether something is right to do or if it’s not. The theory is that let’s say you’ve got a vision or an idea of something that you really think can be effective and you want to know if it’s right or not, try to do something else. And every turn it will bring you back to the original thought. So in London, even between going to Hong Kong or wherever, I was still doing stuff with homeless. And there was this guy running a homeless church, in Leicester Square, this big Irish guy and I got talking to him one night. I had met him before and what you can do in England is take an empty house and you can cover the floor with mattresses. And if you’re going into the West End on a Friday night and there are 30 people sleeping in the gutter you can take them back to this place. And we would do that, go into the West End on weekends and take homeless people back with us to this church, this big old house in North London. It just exploded! It was really good fun. So with this guy, within 24 hours of meeting him, he said can you come over for a meal and I did. He said to me over dinner would you be interested in being involved in this project as a leader? I don’t usually sit around and consider something for a long time so I said yes, that sounds like fun.
We were doing that and we got married within a year and we had made a couple of trips to Sweden just to visit her family. And I still remember to this date, the station was a much smaller place then. This was perhaps in -95. I remember we got off the train and walked into Vasaparken and this guy who I would be working with within two years approached me and said: ”Do you have a cigarette?” And if you catch me in the wrong mood I can be a bit abrasive so I said, ”do I look like a tobacconist?” He was surprised first of all that I was speaking English and secondly because he wasn’t expecting that response. That was the first person I met in Sweden.
Then we talked about what we were going to do because Janet had developed asthma and the pollution in London is pretty bad. Later when she was back here on another trip she said if I looked for an apartment in Västerås would you consider moving? My frame of reference was looking for an apartment in London where it is really hard so quite blaze I said ”yeah, yeah, no problem”. The day before she was due to come back to the UK she rang me and said ”I found an apartment.” I said ”Oh, shit”.
We moved over and moved into Råby, which is not the best part of Västerås, certainly wasn’t then. Then you had to do SFI to work in Sweden but a full time course in Sweden is not really full time so I had all this spare time so I spent all my spare time in the parks with the homeless guys. It’s like you have a radar and they pick it up and you pick it up. A lot of the guys are a bit older so their English is not that good but we never had a problem communicating. So that was my first year. 1997.
So, you arrived to stay here in Västerås 1997. How did you get back into helping homeless and addicts?
At that point, in the late 90s, there were like three or four other organisations working with the homeless. There were at least four places in town where they could drop in or whatever. So that summer, when I was not studying at SFI, I was in the park a lot, but then I found that I could do voluntary work. I had no clue where it was going but I started to serve food, sit down and chatting to people. Really, what I was doing was to build relationships, many of which I still have today.
There was a lot going on in town, four places or so that were helping people. But there wasn’t much common sense involved. They were all opening Monday through Friday. There was nothing open on the weekend. Red days, everything was closed. Christmas, Easter. And the most remarkable part of all of it was that there was this period of time in the summer of six weeks when they had to have holidays. So rather than organising it so that one place was open when the others were shut and having some sort of schedule they all closed for the same six weeks. And no one had ever suggested to them that they should rethink that. So I met with some of the people that ran some of these other places, we discussed it and I said well, let’s look at in a simple, practical way and look at how we can reschedule. And they were like in shock. That some young upstart from England were coming in suggesting that what they were doing were perhaps not so much for the homeless people as for themselves. Then I said quite simply, I am going to offer you a choice: choose six weeks in the year when you don’t want to eat. They hadn’t really looked at it like that before. Even though they were prepared to accept there was a point to what I said, they didn’t want to change the system because it suited them.
At that point we were going to the Pentecostal church, and it’s weird, when you play this back there’s this pattern, none of these things happen by coincidence. Forget it, they don’t just happen. There was a group of young people at the Pentecostal church that decided that, for whatever reason, that they wanted to go out and do something for the homeless on the weekend. And I stepped into the picture. So we would go to Björnö or wherever the homeless were and give them food.
The homeless were very sceptical. Because the one thing about a system that apparently works is that at that time the homeless guys were not looking at it from the perspective of who is this best serving? Is this serving the homeless or is it serving people that want to work and get a salary? And they could see now that a lot of people were doing this and it wasn’t about people, it was about a salary. And I’m not putting that down because you have to have a salary, you have to earn money. But you can’t take these guys out of a filing cabinet at nine o’clock in the morning and put them back at four in the afternoon. If it’s not in there [pointing to his heart], then don’t do it. It’s that simple. If they’re not in your heart, don’t do it.
So anyway that developed in a much bigger way than we had anticipated. There was a testing period which there always is with the homeless, where they step back and kinda see what happens. You know, when they are standing out in the blizzard one week they are wondering if we’d be there next week and we were there next week and we carried on being there next week.
This has been a journey and it will continue to be a journey where you continuously move up another level. For example, one way I know when it’s time to change is when you have to change the size of the serving table to a bigger table you know you’re doing something right. You’re having more people, more choice.
One of my favourite stories about this is we had a Finnish guy called Jussi. He was really a grumpy little bastard. I remember one day he came in and we had this serving table, which was about three meters long and it had everything on it from saft, to coffee, to fruit, to biscuits, to cake, so soup, to this and that. And he stood there, he was a little guy, with his arms across his chest, and said ”Va? Ingen välling!” And that for me was so funny but he was deadly serious. But it was one of the defining moments of what we do. Robert wanted to say piss off but I was out there serving people and that’s now how you respond to people. Anyway so we got välling. So it’s a series of moving up levels and we kept on moving up and it reached a point where the other organisations were not interested in cooperating, they actually didn’t like what we were doing. And that was said, that was very sad.
Why didn’t they like what you were doing?
They didn’t like it because it exposed the lack of care, the lack of real heart. There’s almost like a bizarre system we had where they’re on a wheel, these people that work with it, and they know there are various ways that they could get off the wheel and get other people off the wheel but they don’t want to get off the wheel. They want to perpetuate the homeless people, they want to keep their jobs. For example, when I met with the boss of social services, I said I will only be happy with what I’m doing in Sweden when I don’t have to do it anymore, when there are no more homeless people. She was shocked, she was absolutely shocked, because that would mean she would have no job. And that’s their priority. And that’s unfortunately the way with most social secretaries. If we have 50 social secretaries in town, 35 of them will think that way. It’s really sad. That all of this energy and resources is put into perpetuating what is going on out there. I know of one individual who has had more than five million kronor spent on sending him to rehab. So instead of recognising that you can’t put them all in one basket, there are different people out there with different needs. One of the myths that we need to expose is that some of them are actually homeless out of choice. They want to be homeless. They can be offered apartments, they can be offered accommodation but they don’t want the responsibility, they don’t want that. So what we do is recognise that. You don’t have to admire it but you do have to respect the right they have to make that choice.
So you take them, let’s put them over there, and you give them practical help: clothing, food whatever. Then there’s the next group of people that do want to go into rehab, they do want to try. And you will see an amazing difference. But the system that we have, there are no general rules of thumb. If someone comes today and want rehab they say you have to wait for funding, you have to do this and that. Of course it doesn’t work. So that’s what we were up against and still are to some extent so we knew we had to get off of the streets.
At that time I had heard of a guy called Knut Borg, a very well known local business man who runs a company called Swecox, which used to be in the old customs building. Really cool guy. Anyway, I got his name and I went in. I went in, I never phone people the first time, I always go. Because it is easy to say no on the phone. It’s more difficult if it’s someone in your face. They’re also more interested because I am English. There is no question mark after that, they are. So I turn up at this guy’s very very plush office. It was one of the strangest offices I’ve been in, everything in there was perfect from the Italian designer armchairs, the floor and everything.
I went in there and said you have this building in Sigurdsgatan and it has companies in it, it has a big lobby but it is not used on a weekend. Can I have it? After a short discussion they said yes, you can have it. So I walked out of there with the keys to the building at the end of Sigurdsgatan.
And we were off the street, a major major move.
And when was this?
It must have been 2000. We went from 10 people to 30, 40, 50 in two weeks. We had a great time out there. Building relationships, helping people get into rehab. Generally just having a good time. I went back to Knut Borg a week later to tell him how it was going and I ask him and his co-director, if I would have been Swedish, would you have given me those keys? They said no. Why? Because if you had been Swedish you would not have asked for them. That was the day I understood that I had this ace card that I could play and it was called being English. That was when I decided that I would never do a meeting and speak Swedish. Because the fact that I was English and wanted to do this got me in the door. It was so cool that first four or five years.
After about five years [Swecox] wanted to refurbish the building and do something else with it. And I had already put my stamp on the next building and it was the old bus shelter in Punkt. They had closed it because of homeless people turning up drunk abusing passengers. So then I turn up at their offices and ask for the building. They actually laughed, I can’t remember the name of who I met with now but they laughed. She said, you do know why we closed it? Yes, that’s why I want it I said. Astonishingly they gave me the keys.
Now we had a location that is perfect. It’s right in the middle of town, it’s got toilets, it’s got a shower, it’s even got room for us to build or own little kitchen. So we opened what we called Busspunkten. And it just went up again.
It was so, so good. We were getting people off the street, into rehab. It was more about building relationships and giving these guys some company. It was really, really strong. There are so many examples of people starting rehab, of people getting clean, of people getting married, of people starting families and careers. What happened in that 10 years or more was extraordinary.
When did Busspunkten open?
And it lasted for how long?
Until 2011, 2012.
Why didn’t it work out?
What happens, in a way it’s the result of the success of what you are doing. You have this group of people that are coming to you every week and some of them want help and they’re the ones you put the resources into. So we got people off the streets. But then you have this other percentage of people, more violent, more deep in addiction. So we got people off the streets so we were left with these hooligans. And being out there serving food is wonderful but if you’re not achieving any more than that you have to question why. We had then been giving up our weekends, our Christmas, our Easter for more than 10 years. And my team was getting a lot of abuse and threats, and we were all just very tired and things needed to change. When one of the team was physically attacked that’s when I said enough.
We then moved to Växjö for about year. My wife studied to become a Diakon and that’s what she is now, and she got an opportunity to work in Växjö. I was soon out on the street there too and went to the kommunen and said we’ve found this building, we can do a shelter, a drop in and all these things. Their response was that we don’t have any homeless. Then of course you don’t have to do anything about it. Anyway, we moved back after about a year and when I was out on the streets here again I realised that they had let it go back to where it was 10-15 years ago, nothing on the weekend.
Then I started all over again really. I would come from home, go to McDonalds and buy 50 burgers, make two big thermos of coffee, and go to the back of the station and sit outside in the car park. It was simple but wonderful. I started to enlarge on that with a camping stowe and someone decided to start giving me soup.
How did that lead to using Intiman?
We started getting some press. One weekend we had papers and tv. People started to email me, call me to see what was happening, how they could help out. But after this press coverage you have to realise that it’s hot and the soup kitchen was hot at this time.
Then one day I got a text message from this guy. I had known Björn Carlsson for many years and he just text me saying do you have anywhere else. So I met him here, he showed me around and asked what do you think? Of course I said yes, what am I going to say. Then I don’t think he had half a clue of what he was getting himself in to. And that’s something wonderful that once he was in this and started to realise how big this could be it would have been easy for him to say sorry, I can’t do this anymore. But he has never looked back.
And the guys love him, he is a key part of this. With all his connections we can do music and much more. I think in the future we’ll see much more coming down through his connections than he even realises.
Then you became the Västerås Vardagshjälte. How did you first hear of that?
A guy called Lennart Klaar who is one of the administrators for Vänliga Västerås drove past me in town and said you have been nominated for Västerås hero. Many people are phoning in to vote for you. I just had no conception of what he was talking about. Then I got the paper and saw I was on the front of the paper. Actually that was a really good picture. I thought it had been air brushed first. Even then I had no idea what it was about.
Then people contacted me saying they voted for me and things. Then one journalist calls me and says Robert you have been nominated for Västerås Hero and I said, come one, who is this on the phone? Stop messing about. No, this is serious. I really didn’t know what to say. It was extraordinary. For the soup kitchen it was great to be recognised by the commune. A massive step and we’re building on that now.
It’s just extraordinary to be in this town and be a part of a group of people that without getting anything back just want to put it. And that’s the key to me why this works. No one is expecting on a personal level to get anything out of this. We’re here because we want to serve people and help.
Then you won. How does that help in what you do?
I know I can be a pain in the ass sometimes because I can never turn it off. And sometimes I wish I could turn it off. That night at the dinner after the award I went up to the buffe to take a bit of food. And I’m looking at the food and the people and I know there’s too much food. I went behind the counter and asked the guy in charge of the food what they would do with what’s left over. He said, why do you want to know? I said I want it for the homeless people. He looked at me as if I was a maniac but I got the food.
So with the hero experience, do you think that you’re becoming more of a västeråsare?
I am now actually now an anglo-swede. There used to be much more of a clear cut line but it’s getting blurred.
So yeah, absolutely. I think if you had said to me five years ago that there is a job and somewhere to live in the UK, you can start next week, I would probably have said yes. But now, no. This is the place I am supposed to be with the people I am supposed to be with.
What are the plans for the future?
The railway wagon. It is a work in progress and as everything in Sweden it takes a while. I need to take the right steps in the right order so now I am working on securing the tracks for the wagon to sit on, then I can work on finding the actual wagon. We’re looking for a dining car, which will be very closely followed by a sleeping car. Then we can open an emergency nigh shelter in the winter. And now I am also working on getting teams of people in place to help out so no one has to help out every weekend, all their Christmases and such.
When do you hope to have the first wagon in place?
By the winter, I’m hoping. And it’s frustrating at times but I want to do this right and doing it right means that we have to do certain things the Swedish way. But this was never going to be a sprint. For me this was always going to be a marathon.