The Church Times have published a revised version of my article on soup runs.
A threat to ban soup runs for homeless people in Westminster has led to acrimony. Better co-ordination is required, says Jon Kuhrt.
Passionate debates about how best to help homeless people are nothing new. People sleeping on the pavement are one of the most shocking manifestations of poverty in the UK, and instinctively many people want to help. Yet there is now growing criticism of the kind of help that is perceived, especially by local authorities, to be maintaining the “street lifestyle” of homeless people rather than encouraging them to move off the streets.
The epicentre of the debate is in Westminster, because no other local authority in the UK has more people sleeping rough in its patch than Westminster City Council (WCC). In recent years, WCC has become increasingly at odds with groups, many linked with churches, which come into central London to give free food to rough sleepers. WCC believes this to be an ineffective and outdated way of helping, and one that contributes to anti-social behaviour.
In February, WCC put out proposals for a new by-law that would ban these “soup runs”, proposals that would also ban rough sleeping in the whole Victoria area. Beginning the obligatory consultation process, it asked for feedback.
The proposals have received an angry response. Coming from a Conservative council popularly considered to be the richest local authority in the country, the plans were always going to be hard to sell; but factors such as the recession, cuts in social-care budgets, and cynicism about how this might be linked to the royal wedding, and, for next year, the Olympics, made it particularly hard for the Council to present them positively.
Loud protests came from an alliance of organisations concerned with homelessness, from churches, and from those who actually deliver the soup runs. Activists vowed to keep on distributing the food, whatever the consequences.
But killer comments also came from unexpected sources: the Tory Mayor, Boris Johnson, and the Conservative central government have not supported the proposals, either. The Leader of the Commons, Sir George Young, said he hoped that Westminster would seek “a more enlightened approach” rather than a legislative ban.
I work for the Methodist West London Mission, which has been delivering front-line services for rough sleepers in Westminster for decades. We have worked closely with both WCC and many other churches, and are concerned about the unnecessary polarisation that WCC’s proposed ban has created.
Discussions over the past few weeks have sometimes resembled a pantomime: on one side is Westminster City Council (“Boo! Hiss!”), with a small number of agencies for the homeless that are willing to support their proposed ban (“Sell-outs!”); on the other side is an alliance of individuals, grass-roots groups, and church activists (“Hurrah! Up the revolution! Anyone for minestrone?”).
But a good number of organisations, including the West London Mission, do not want to debate the issue in this way. We believe that the proposed WCC by-law is wrong: we think it is poorly thought out, unjust, and counter-productive. But that does not mean we give wholesale support to the approach taken by many of the soup runs.
As the director of another Christian organisation for the homeless said to me recently: “Soup runs do have a place . . . and that place is in history.” Many experienced in working with homeless people believe that those who lead soup runs need to respond to legitimate criticisms of the way in which they operate.
First, soup runs seek to serve rough sleepers, but, in fact, diverse groups of people use them. The street-based approach perpetuates the idea that the street is where generosity and kindness can be accessed, and this helps people who need these things, whether or not they are rough sleepers.
Second, soup runs create difficulties for neighbours. Requiring a critical mass of recipients, those giving out food need to go to places where people congregate. Many soup runs follow each other to hotspots, where they can be sure of finding quantities of people who want what they are giving away.
Third, too many well-meaning people and church groups come in to central London to deliver their soup and sandwiches from a long way outside. It would be better if they helped people in their area instead. Churches can do a huge amount locally by supporting a hostel, befriending vulnerable people, or through proven schemes such as Food Bank, and Street Pastors. The website Community Mission has more ideas and resources about how to tackle poverty locally.
Fourth, as well as commitment and faith, there are also some powerful egos at work in this debate, among soup-run organisers and in WCC alike. People can become defensive when their identity is too closely wrapped up with the service they are committed to delivering, and this makes rational debate difficult.
None of these issues is new, however. Work has been going on for many years, by Housing Justice, and more recently by the Passage, to better co-ordinate the soup-run organisers. Personally, I would favour the introduction of a mandatory registration scheme for all soup runs, in order to reduce duplication and poor practice.
At the time of writing, we await the conclusions from the consultation process, to see whether WCC will push ahead with its plans, or back down. Whatever the outcome, I believe this whole episode will be judged to have been profoundly counter-productive. In homelessness work, co-ordination between organisations is vital; and the tragedy of WCC’s proposals is that, instead of building partnership and trust, they have sown more seeds of discord and division.
I hope that all the agencies and individuals involved can move on from the polarisation created by the proposed by-law, and work together for a future in which homeless people receive the best of what churches, voluntary organisations, and statutory agencies can offer them.