“Street Spirit started early 2014 when a small group of “lay people” who not having been much involved with homeless issues prior to that time observed there were a number of rough sleepers hanging round the town centre and wanted to respond practically and with compassion. Their response was to try to find out more about what was going on that gave rise to these situations and do what they could to help by way of small acts of kindness, such as giving out food, drink and other provisions, and simply encouraging those they met, to help rough sleepers survive on the streets. Through various publicity, such as reports in the local paper, use of social media and word of mouth through friends, this attracted others to join them and a group was set up to offer grass-roots support to those finding themselves homeless, whether they are sleeping rough on the streets of Southend, sofa-surfing or having been recently housed and in need of practical support.
The group is non-religious, non-political and comprises volunteers from all walks of life. From the early days, it was decided one of the more efficient ways to contact rough sleepers was by having a regular place to meet that operated like a soup kitchen. Clarence Road car park was seen as suitable (except in very bad weather) and has been used (with permission) ever since, operating from 8-10pm every Saturday night. Street Spirit offer time, friendship and (limited) advice to those who want it, and raise funds via putting on events, and accepting donations of money and of a material nature, in order to provide food, sleeping bags, clothing, toiletries and other essential items that might benefit those in need. Typically around 60 persons use Street Spirit services each week and it tries to ensure material needs are catered for. Priority is given to those sleeping rough, but anyone needing support and friendship is welcome to use its services”.
Considering where we are today, 19th July 2020, nearly five years later, not much has changed other than our starting at 7pm rather than 8pm, with the need (at least before the March Covid-19 lockdown) being much the same, despite there being many more services “out there” who are into “caring for the homeless and vulnerable” (our strapline). Yesterday was our third week operating following “lockdown” restrictions being lifted (observing the relevant “government advice”). In the first week, we served hot meals to 25 and last night we served 40. Not exact, but not far off, half were genuine street homeless. As for the other half, the majority had financial and other needs as to why they used our service, with 10 of these being foreign nationals with “no recourse to public funds”. For me, engaging with the homeless folk, some I have got to know well, and besides being something I can do, it is a privilege.
As we come out of lockdown, the big question is what is the new “normal” going to look like, and having got the majority of rough sleepers in Southend into temporary accommodation during lockdown, can we continue to provide accommodation after lockdown and deal with issues like mental ill health, assorted addiction and practical matters like obtaining benefits or the wherewithal to pay the rent and the skills to maintain tenancy, AND how can we work with statutory organisations like the local council in order to provide an efficient service that addresses the need. The fact that soup kitchens have long operated in a certain way does not mean they should continue to do so, and neither is there a place for those who are not addressing the issues to make false statements concerning the modus operandi of soup kitchens who are trying their best to respond to some real needs. I can only speak for Street Spirit, but I am sure the same is true for the other soup kitchens, that despite all of us having our quirks we all try to deliver a professional type service,that if we don’t, who will?
I will end by giving the final word (with permission) to one of the leaders of a sister “soup kitchen”, One Love, just to make the point that the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) continues to do what the VCS has always done and that is to address the gaps (which in the case of homelessness are big and many): “Another busy week had by all on the One Love team organised by AB & SC. Monday & Thursday night saw 108 visitors to the Soup Kitchen. A takeaway service & food bank items are on offer to anyone that is temporary accommodated but may be struggling or no access to kitchen facilities. Street sleepers are invited in to have a nutritious sit down meal, shower and change of clothing. Our guest relations team offer emotional and practical support with housing solutions and so on. This week we have booked a one-way flight for a guest that had been attending One Love for the past 3 years that is desperate to visit his mum who is at end of life in his home country. With the lack of opportunity here in England we hope that he can re-build family relationships and have an opportunity to settle back home in the Czech Republic. Our outreach team will see that he is taken to the airport and boards safely on his flight home. Thank you to our wonderful volunteers and the local community we are able to offer a good nutritious meal, clothing, donation and kindness & support during the difficult times we see our guests endure”.