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A mention of soup kitchens and food banks in my previous post (Further Back in Time for Dinner), prompted this comment:

“I guess we don’t have soup kitchens any more. I volunteered at the Southampton soup kitchen in the early part of the millenium. It served rough sleepers, people living in inadequate housing without facilities to cook, and a few poor students. I think we had some lonely people who came for the company.

We served vegetable soup, augmented with a few vegetables, bread rolls, coffee and tea from the porch of St Mary’s Church. The soup was prepared by the staff at the rough sleepers’ hostel run by the Society of St James. It operated every evening 365 days a year.

Both initiatives closed down many years ago at the behest of the council who believed it reinforced rough sleeping. Perhaps the were right, but neither the problem nor need have gone away as I can witness. Today I met a young man and his dog “Weasel” living in the stairwell of one of the multi storey car parks. Many shop doorways were occupied by a person with sleeping bag, card board sheet, bag and begging hat. It was the worst I have ever seen it.”

I used to volunteer at a similar project. We opened twice a day and people could come in, have a sandwich (meat, cheese and, I think, fish), two biscuits and unlimited tea, coffee and “bonuses” (jam or marmite sandwiches) people who didn’t want to come inside could get a “takeaway” (sandwiches and biscuits) at the door. Occasionally we had leftover Marks & Spencer sandwiches and leftover hot food from the old people’s home next door.We also had a clothing store and even handed out candles.

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It had sprung up in response to a homelessness crisis in the mid-eighties along with a number of similar projects – I remember a friend taking part in the Friday night “soup run” to Bonn Square in the centre of Oxford.

By the end of the 1990’s, the organizers had come to the conclusion that they weren’t actually helping anybody and, if anything, were just helping people to stay where they were.

Out of this was born the idea of a proper day centre where people could have freshly prepared meals in a cafe-like environment; where they could have access to things like showers, washing machines and clean clothes; where they could get help with finding accommodation and, critically, where people could work with them to resolve the problems that put them on the street in the first place and which may be keeping them there. What it also provides is a social environment where people can make friends over a meal or a cup of tea of through shared leisure activities, something that is sometimes overlooked in the focus on physical needs.

As in Southampton, the local council has gradually withdrawn funding from projects that just offer a handout rather than a hand up.

There’s still one Oxford project running on the free tea, sandwiches and occasional soup model in Oxford. My personal view is that there is probably a place for it in the mix as it may act as a point of contact with people who might otherwise have no contact with support services.

Another project offers a free freshly cooked meal twice a week. Again, this has lost funding and been criticized for not making any difference to people’s lives. On the other hand, it’s a nutritious meal, lovingly prepared and the rest of us expect to eat out from time to time, so why not homeless people?

Why does everyone think that all homeless people want to do is eat soup?

I never cease to be amazed and moved by the amount of good will and genuine concern for the plight of homeless people in Oxford. The public are astonishingly generous -they want to “do something rather than nothing”, but often feel helpless as to what to do for the best. It can never be wrong to offer food to a hungry person, but at the same time we need to recognize that may be just keeping them going for another day rather than solving any underlying problem. And as someone recently said – “Why does everyone think that all homeless people want to do is eat soup?”