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Community-led soup kitchens and the public's misguided love for them

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Written by Hugo Sugg, Chief Executive

I want to make clear that homelessness is a public health issue and needs to be addressed as such in both the public consciousness and policy decisions.

It's important to note what part community-led soup kitchens play in the lives of people who are homeless - however we have to be realistic about where these services fit into a wider strategic process of tackling homelessness.

The public generally have a very favourable view of community-led soup kitchens because they see it as alleviating a problem of hunger.

Those in the homelessness sector know that simply addressing the need of hunger is not the solution to ending someone's episode of rough sleeping. Whilst of course they assist in a human need, they can result in having a negative impact by conditioning rough sleepers to staying on the street.

When working to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, the statutory duty sits with the local authority and charitable or voluntary-sector partners they work with. Possibly due to the bureaucratic nature of responding to homelessness on this level or negative views of authorities, community-led soup kitchens might be resistant to working in partnership with organisations like the council.

This lack of joint working can result in a difference of approach between the homelessness sector and the general public.

I want to note that religious groups and people in the community have their heart in the right place when holding soup kitchens. This should not be discouraged in principle, but discussions about their role in the wider context need to be discussed.

Many people-led soup kitchens are not formally registered to a body like the Charity Commission and operate independently. Some may have a political position which conflicts with the government position on the issue - and this is seen with the London soup kitchen organisation Street's Kitchen.

Whilst many of the general public will view community-led soup kitchens as a virtue of where others (particularly the state) are failing, it is important to put into context why this may be:

When people walk down the street and see someone in a doorway, they may automatically feel compassion towards them and wish they were housed.

That is generally the public's knowledge when it comes to homelessness. They may wonder about how the person rough sleeping ended up there or what support is being offered - but for many reasons, often do not ask these questions.

Attribute this to the general public walking past a van or boot of a car offering free food to people on the streets of a night time - and the public have it confirmed that homelessness is dealt with by offering food on the streets.

But offering anyone food on the street can present problems. In 2018, a street café in Worcester ran out of a church and an altercation between people who were homeless and the public occurred. This resulted in a chunk of a man's nose bitten off and ended up hospitalised.

The church was forced to stop allowing the street café to operate from their premises after the attack. As a homeless campaigner in Worcester at the time, I raised concerns about the lack of measures put in place to safeguard participants.

I asked the people who run the café to share their safeguarding policy and they couldn't provide one. This communication was detailed in a Worcester News article* and the paper allowed comments on their website.

The comments were from members of the public that heavily criticised my involvement in the matter and defended the street café on the basis they were doing a good deed.

(For the record and in the balance of fairness, the group clarified they were in talks with the local authority to draft a safeguarding policy as a result.)

I use this as one example of bad practice however it emphasises my point that the public can often view one side without seeing a wider context.

Local authorities and charities tackling homelessness need to think more about the relationship between community-led soup kitchens and the wider efforts to tackle the issue in hand. This could be bringing the community in on discussions around the strategic approach to homelessness or offering some sort of support to the community to ensure safeguarding is upheld.

Another approach is organisations working with community-led soup kitchens to ensure professionals are there to talk to any attendees about their housing/support options.

Putting it really simply: Homelessness is not easy to tackle and no one person, group, project or organisation can solve it.

The public need support and educating to understand homelessness in its wider context and it is the responsibility of all in the homeless sector to do this. There are a number of positive campaigns across the UK which do this, and should be replicated with a sector-wide push.

The Cardon Banfield Foundation invites professionals or members of the public to contact us about how best they can respond to homelessness in the UK. Please contact us via our website: Cardon Banfield Fdn.

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