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Soup runs: against, indifferent or in favour?

May 18 2009
© Neil Bennett © Neil Bennett
The proposed ban on soup runs polarised opinion, with homeless industry representatives coming out for and against it The London Councils members' proposed ban on soup runs gave rise to much debate amongst homeless organisations, with industry representatives coming out in favour and against the ban. Jeremy Swain, chief executive of Thames Reach, said that it supported London Councils' decision to prevent the distribution of free food: "There are far too many food handouts coming into central London. Our experience over many years is that soup runs and other handouts do little to assist people to move off of the street. In fact we believe that there is evidence that they act as a magnet bringing people back onto the street and contribute to them staying attached to a street lifestyle." Mr Swain claims that local communities have reached the end of their tether, with street handouts causing noise, nuisance and mess. He conceded that "without food being provided by charities, churches and concerned members of the public, these people could starve or at the very least place their health in jeopardy." However, he added, a mobile food distribution service is not the way to help people: "The random, untargeted nature of food handouts, as noted above, is likely to create more problems than they solve." He believes that such services should be indoors and should be geared towards helping people move away from the streets. Homeless Link, the national umbrella organisation for homelessness agencies, said that different areas would need different solutions to ending homelessness. A spokesperson said: "Soup runs can have a use in certain areas with few services but need always to work to engage people with help that goes beyond a mug of soup and helps them move off the streets." The organisation stressed the good that volunteers could do by helping in different ways, such as working at day centres, with skills programmes and by mentoring and buddying. The spokesperson added: "Things have moved on from the 1980s, and now people should be encouraged to help in ways that bring longer term benefits to homeless people." Ahead of the consultations that led to the failure of the proposal, a spokesperson for Hammersmith-based charity St Mungo's said that London Councils were meeting "a lot of opposition to the proposal". The spokesperson added that while it was up to the heads of the leading parties in each council whether or not they wanted to force the proposal through, this would be unlikely because of the strong reservations about the proposal. St Mungo's noted in a statement released to The Pavement that the charity began as a soup run provider, but that over the years it had sought to expand its services, moving away from soup run provision "as it became apparent that it was not the most effective way of providing the best help to the most vulnerable." However, it said that people should never be discouraged from showing compassion or wanting to help and that it "wholeheartedly" supported volunteer helpers. Unequivocally in support, Duncan Shrubsole, director of policy & research at Crisis, said: "Soup runs can be an effective form of outreach and way of engaging with homeless people, particularly the most vulnerable, and can be the first step to linking them into a wider network of services." He expressed Crisis's concern about "any attempt to outlaw or impose bans on soup runs." Mr Shrubsole added that there was a need for some co-ordination of different activities and that Crisis would support the work of the Soup Run Forum as a means of promoting good practice and co-ordination. Following the decision to drop the clause from the bill, Adam Sampson, chief executive of Shelter, said: "Well-developed and co-ordinated soup runs play a valuable role in providing a mixture of practical and emotional help to vulnerable homeless people, and so we are delighted that London councillors have blocked Westminster's attempt to ban them in the capital." He added: "We encourage local authorities to work with the providers of soup runs in the capital to ensure coordination, good joint working with other agencies and good practice. We believe this will help not only those forced to sleep rough, but will also be the most effective way to help them off the streets and into hostel accommodation and winter shelters." The initial outcome of the decision to scrap the proposed ban is the set up of a cross-party working group by leaders of London Councils whose aim is "to look at the challenges involved" and at the work that is being done by the boroughs, charitable partners and voluntary organisations in assisting rough sleepers.
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