Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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A victory for soup runs

May 18 2009
Steve Barnes, Alastair Murray, Gary Birdsall and Tim Nicholls Steve Barnes, Alastair Murray, Gary Birdsall and Tim Nicholls
Plans to ban the city‘s soup runs have been dropped, but many people are still dubious about them London Councils have dropped controversial plans, reported last issue, to legislate against the city's soup runs. Most see it as a victory of common sense, but the proposal also showed that many people still hold a negative view of soup runs. Westminster City Council, the borough with the highest concentration of day centres and hostels in the country, put forward the plans to ban the distribution of free food in the capital, arguing that the service prolongs people's time on the streets and is abused by other social groups. However, opposition groups blasted the proposals as 'inhumane' and have now blocked the plans in their current form. The legislation would have formed part of the London Local Authorities Bill, which was discussed by senior councillors on Tuesday 13th November. Opponents were there to see the proposal dropped. Alastair Murray, chair of the Soup Run Forum, told The Pavement: "London Councils' leaders seemed surprised by the breadth and strength of opposition to this proposed ban from religious leaders, academics and ordinary concerned citizens. Instead of banning soup runs, the priority must be to improve the overall safety net of services, including and involving smaller volunteer groups, so that fewer people are excluded or having to live hand-to-mouth." Councillor Colin Barrow, of Westminster City Council, had said the abolition of soup runs was a 'life or death' issue, and donations were only temporary relief for a serious long-term physical problems associated with life on the streets. He said: "This [the failed proposed legislation] is nothing to do with moving on the vulnerable, Nimbyism or hard-heartedness. It has been expertly drafted and designed to be precise. "Food charities come with the best intentions, but their donations do not reach those in the greatest need - they are well-intentioned, but sadly misguided." However, Councillor Clyde Loakes, leader of the council for Waltham Forest, dismissed what he called a 'heavy handed' and 'inhumane' approach to the issue and urged Mayor Ken Livingstone to support Labour's calls for the 'draconian' bill to be dropped. Although somewhat vague about his own feelings on the proposal, the Mayor did warn the councillors that even if the proposal were pushed through, it would be dismissed by the House of Lords. Councillor Barrow accussed Mr Livingstone of avoiding a controversial issue in advance of the election, but the Mayor responded, "within Westminster, we provide a complex range of services available to rough sleepers, help that will last beyond the electoral cycle. We want long-term solutions, and I urge the councillors to consider this before having a knee-jerk political reaction to the proposals." London councillors subsequently agreed the plans needed further discussion, due to the opposition, and finally dropped them. The debate will continue outside the council offices about whether abolishing soup runs is a case of starving people into submission, or a 'tough love' approach to a difficult problem. Timothy Nicholls, director of the Simon Community, said the council's claims that food provisions kept people on the streets was "complete and utter nonsense". "I am sure that giving soup may prolong people's lives on the streets, in that it may prevent them from going hungry," he said. "But why do we have to deal with a consistent politics of hunger? Rough sleepers in London are among the most vulnerable members of UK society. And should not be threatened with starvation to get off the streets." "Soup runs consistently advise people on the other services available to them, and wish to see the very best for those whom they serve," Mr Nicholls claimed. "But we must recognise that some people on the streets are frightened, confused, isolated, or are just not in a position to conform to the system in the way Westminster would like them to do so." However, Councillor Angela Harvey, of Westminster, defended her group's proposals. "Charity is a wonderful thing," she said. "Offering compassion and care to people is not something we want to stop. We know there are good people, who really want to do good things for others, but in the case of free food distribution, they are actually hurting those they want to help." Westminster Council has consulted with organisations such as The Passage, St Mungo's and Thames Reach, about improving the support offered to the homeless. Councillor Harvey said there was a general consensus that providing free food kept people on the streets for longer. "We have spoken to former rough sleepers, and they have told us if these types of services were not there, they may have sought help sooner," she said. "They tell us they wish they had accepted the help before, but because they could just take the food and slip away, they did not have to think about their situation." Councillor Harvey had said she would ensure soup runs that are not just serving food would remain active. "We want to enter into a dialogue with all the soup runs, and help them to find another way to provide help," she continued. "We will look into helping them to set up their own day centres in the towns they operate out of, because let's not forget, homelessness is not just centralised to London, and many of the soup runs come from outside." She likened the plans to moves around the country to prevent people from giving money to beggars on public transport. But would taking food away force anyone to be more proactive? Mr Nicholls was not convinced of either the plan to "starve people into submission" or of Westminster's promise of support to food distributors. "I am sure soup runs could provide a more holistic service, but that argument is more one about resources, something we simply do not have," he said. "We were hoping to find ways of working closer with the other providers of services to homeless people to ensure better levels of care, but one senses that an intention of criminalising us means they no longer have a very strong desire to work collaboratively with us." Indeed, other food distributors have reported feeling criminalised. Robert Edwards works with Food For All, an organisation that provides free meals to roughly 800 people in North London with the support of the Hare Krishna organisation. They used to run a centre in Camden; however, Mr Edwards claimed the council pushed them out when residents complained about the noise outside. Now they deliver all the food from the back of a van to whoever requires it. Many of their customers are not rough sleepers, but people on income support or students. Mr Edwards and Mr Nicholls suspected the Westminster councillors' claims of putting the welfare of the homeless above any other issues were false. They said the real reasons behind the proposals were complaining residents and the fact that people do not like to see suffering in a supposedly successful city. These views were mirrored in the homeless community, which has been angered and upset by suggestions that they are a stain on the conscience of society. However, Councillor Harvey was wary of conspiracy theorists. "If you are living off a mixture of drugs and alcohol, then your version of reality is likely to be different from everybody else's, and it must be easy for these things to become hard fact." She added: "I can categorically say that this is not part of some wider scheme to rid London's streets by the Olympics." However, she admitted there were other issues affecting the decision to remove soup runs from the borough. In addition to wishing to improve provisions for rough sleepers, Westminster said it wished to discourage less vulnerable people who abuse the free food provisions. "We are aware some people who use these services are not homeless; they are in work and are trying to send all the money they possibly can home," she added. "I have seen people come past and take whole carrier bags of sandwiches, which they cannot possibly eat all by themselves. They will take all this back to their flatmates so they do not have to pay for food that evening." Her concerns include the number of East Europeans relying on soup runs in Victoria. "A lot of these new workers are young healthy men - I am more vulnerable than they are. They are straight off the bus in Victoria and these are not the people our services were intended for." She added that many rough sleepers had reported feeling 'pushed out' and 'marginalised' by the influx of foreign workers. This violence, and the increased number of people using soup runs, has caused problems for local residents. Westminster claims to have received numerous complaints about the noise surrounding soup runs. "People with young families have complained to us, and the elderly, and both groups say they no longer feel safe walking past some of these larger groups," explained Councillor Harvey. "Parents have told us their teenage daughters have been harassed by the queues that form outside the soup runs, and I can understand why they may be frightened." Official figures for Westminster show there are only 100 people sleeping rough in the borough. This figure does not include people in temporary accommodation, nor those involved in what Councillor Harvey called "street activities such as begging". Westminster City Council claims that to provide for these 100 people, there are more than 50 soup runs, and 1,600 hostel spaces, which were boosted by ¬¨¬£17m in upgrades last year, and will receive a further ¬¨¬£70m nationwide from the government next year. In short: there's no need for soup. However, many more are unconvinced by the figures, the reasoning and the rationale.