Don’t blame soup kitchens for showing compassion and support to those in need

Soup kitchens are there to fill a desperate social need - they haven't caused the problem, says volu

Soup kitchens are there to fill a desperate social need - they haven't caused the problem, says volunteer Lex Barber. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

I have worked with the homeless, hungry and vulnerable communities of Norwich for more than nine years, with organisations including Norwich Open Christmas, Norwich Food Bank, and one of the soup kitchens that operates from the Haymarket nightly; the latter of which Steven Downes' most recent opinion piece brought into question.

Many won't have read past the loaded question in the headline of Steven's article, but those who have, and who support or work with one of the extremely hard-working organisations referred to, will understand just how dangerous raising such questions without answering them or giving any evidence to back them up can be. It suggests a real issue is being compounded by volunteers – at a time during inclement weather when if they were to withdraw their help, people would be at risk of literally losing their lives.

I don't disagree that homelessness is on the rise, but statistics show that this is a country-wide problem and not just local to Norwich. This rise has happened over the last few years. Shelter's own research shows that the South East of Britain as home to the third highest growing homeless population.

If you think rough sleepers make Norwich look as though it's 'on the decline' and you don't like it, take practical action to help. The community street kitchens are a great place to start, and they always need volunteers. But their audience is not just what you may think of as 'the homeless'. It is sadly these people who are at risk of being judged harshly as 'not genuine'.

The definition of the word 'homeless' is debated. Shelter themselves include 281,000 people across the UK living in temporary accommodation in their definition, as well as over 21,000 living in social services housing, and almost 5,000 sleeping rough. These figures do not, of course, take into account those sofa surfing or sleeping where they can to survive that are not counted as 'in the system'. Does the definition matter?

Realistically, the street soup kitchens serve many people other than the homeless community and serve much more than just soup. On a nightly basis, volunteers give up their time to feed and support OAPs too shaky to cook themselves a meal safely, families who can't afford to turn on their cooking appliances, vulnerable and ill people who are unable to look after themselves sufficiently, and those so socially isolated that their only opportunity to leave the house and meet others is during soup kitchen service. Volunteers help fill out benefit forms, give out toiletries, address minor first aid issues and are a friendly and willing ear to those need it.

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Do all these people meet the definition that most would hold of the word 'homeless'? No. Do the volunteers consider any of these people in less need than others of a meal, a drink and a chat? No.

We must be clear here. Everyone who feels they need the help of one of the community groups is welcome to attend. The volunteers will not ask questions, pass judgment or treat anyone differently.

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There are huge issues to be resolved in the management and accommodation of vulnerable, hungry and homeless people country-wide. Yes, services need to be more joined up. Yes, there are not just local but societal issues to be resolved. But is my cooking that good that people risk their dignity, safety, warmth and even life to sample it? I doubt it. I'm yet to meet anyone I didn't truly believe needed my help; in the form of hot food or otherwise.

It is not until much wider issues have been resolved that the soup kitchen volunteers can pack up and stop service. Blaming them is naïve and offensive; and if they stop now, human beings, homeless and otherwise, will suffer as a result.

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