A week ago, I reflected on how well my town, Southend, was served by soup kitchens (see here), these days covering every night of the week, along with other outlets serving food to homeless folk.
A chance conversation with one of my spies made me realise that not everyone sees this in such a positive light. I have long been aware that all across the land there are stories of local authorities trying (and sometimes succeeding) in driving homeless folk from their town centres because of associated anti social behavior and having homeless folk in the face of visitors to the town centre is not good for business. What I am hearing is that some of those with interests in town centre trading are critical of the soup kitchens.
Here I declare an interest. While as a lifelong Southend resident I want the town centre to thrive, including businesses prospering, I am also actively involved in one of the soup kitchens. While I can’t speak for the rest, my belief is those who are involved do so as a compassionate response to the needs of the homeless. While our numbers vary, on average they are 40-50, and while it is often not possible to say who are homeless or not, I reckon half are and many of the other half are living on the breadline and appreciate what we offer. We try to run a sound operation, mindful of health and safety and food hygiene considerations, we are beholden to the weather and given we operate in a public space we cannot fully control all what goes on in that space. While most of our guests respect what we are trying to do, sometimes we do face anti-social behavior. As is often the case when people criticize behind one’s back, often without knowing the full facts, it would be nice to talk, show what we do and find ways to resolve differences. Notwithstanding, I have no doubt soup kitchens can do better, starting with more closely cooperating.
Regarding the town centre being a magnet for rough sleepers and this being accentuated because of free food etc. on offer, this cannot be denied. In recent years there have been improvements when it comes to housing the homeless, helped partly by the passing of the Homeless Reduction Act and giving extra resources to local authorities to address homeless issues, yet the perennial question remains: what do we do with the rough sleepers who gravitate toward town centres? We still have a sizable rough sleeper community (how many, no-one knows for sure) in Southend and while it is true some choose not to engage with services, many do and are still on the streets, especially those who have no recourse to public funds. If we move rough sleepers away from the town centre, including (if it were possible) shutting down the soup kitchens, where do we move them onto, and how do we address issues like providing suitable accommodation and support services?
I raise these questions, not knowing all the answers or fully understanding the homeless paradigm despite being a homeless activist for these past 10 years and more. While I sympathise with the need to regenerate the town centre and encourage town centre based business, I feel that by helping in the operation of one of the soup kitchens, I am helping to address an all too real need. But as often is the case, there may be ways to do things better. Whatever the economic considerations or the inconvenience caused by rough sleeping, society (us) have an obligation to help the needy.