Note: I am revisiting this article after 9 months to provide important updates, which have been added at the end.
I reckon soup kitchens have been around for centuries and in the early days the main offering was soup offered to those who might otherwise starve because of their impoverished situation. And if not soup kitchens, there have been people who had that have given to those who had not, often out of the kindness of their hearts, maybe from the earliest human existence. As for my own home town of Southend-on-Sea, I have been aware of soup kitchens, serving the homeless and other vulnerable people, ever since I became a homeless activist, some ten years ago. It is fair to say, in none of these cases has soup been the main offering, but providing decent, much appreciated grub and other bits and bobs has been.
Homeless soup kitchens come and go. At the start of the year, “Soup 4 Southend” ceased operating. Much credit goes to the two at the centre of operations, Mark and Juliette, who every Sunday for a number of years, come rain come shine, have fed a good number of Southend’s homeless population. They are sadly a rarity, for in my experience many start off enthusiastically and after a short time give up when interest wanes. Another soup kitchen, “Team Warrior”, served many homeless people in the town for a time. Some of its work was taking on by “Homeless Hub”, which continues to this day to operate a sterling service. Then I need to mention my own soup kitchen, “Street Spirit”, which operates every Saturday night from 7 to 8.30 pm at the Clarence Road car park. We feed, sometimes clothe, give out night packs, sleeping bags and other sundry items to help surviving on the streets, listen, show empathy and do some stuff to help outside that slot and have been doing so consistently for the past three years and more. We realize our limitations, for the needs are far greater than what we can realistically address, but at least we do something and we frequently see evidence of our having made a difference. And finally I should mention the new kid on the block, “One Love”, who opened last night, doing many of the things we associate with soup kitchens and doing them well. We wish them well as they seek to address some of the many homeless needs.
All sorts of questions are begged when the question of soup kitchens are raised, not least the behind the scenes efforts need to make them viable and all sorts of practical considerations. How to differentiate the needy from the greedy, the genuine from the free loaders, those who really need a helping hand from them who spend their money on alcohol knowing there are mugs who will help them out, the delicate flowers and those whose anti social tendencies drive those flowers away and whether to be judgmental or non judgmental, to give out or not give out, to operate tough love or allow anything to go. It can and does cause tensions and I have known soup kitchen folk to fall out because of differences in approach and personality. While purity of motive is a wonderful thing, my own analysis is that no-one is 100% pure in their motives and all of us are flawed.
There is always room to do more, work together more and be a lot smarter. The gaps are huge and sign posting to nonexistent services or having to come to terms with a broken system and broken people, as I do all the time, can be heart breaking, but at least I tell guests the facts of life, offer crumbs of compassion and try to empower them to help themselves. I always tell folk: mine is not to criticize others, especially when what they do helps, for I don’t walk the walk of our guests or share the perspectives of those who seek to help, but rather one must focus on what one can do, consistently and well.
So there you are – this is my brief off the cuff take on the soup kitchens of Southend, made possible because of an army of volunteers whose motives may well be mixed but the one that invariably shines through is compassion. While what they do is limited, it is also necessary and makes a vital difference for many.
Update 08/03/18: During the past week I have visited two new soup kitchens: Genuine Homeless People that operates on Sundays and Care in Style that operates on Wednesdays, both at 7pm from the Clarence Road car park. They have started well and are in it for the long term. All the kitchens mentioned above 9 months ago continue to operate and have provided a sterling service to homeless and vulnerable people. Street Spirit operates on Saturdays and Homeless Hub on Tuesdays, also at 7pm in the Clarence Road car park. One Love operates from the Hollybrook site by the Civic Centre, on Monday and Thursday evenings, 6-8.30pm. It means every night of the week is covered except for Fridays, although individuals do go out of their way to feed the homeless on this and other nights; and not to forget 57 West and the Salvation Army.