The most pressing concern is to separate out the issues.
There are two parts to the byelaw: the banning of the distribution of food and the banning of sleeping or lying down in a certain defined area of Westminster. Although, in some respects there is a natural linkage between the two, initially I want to divide them up.
I’ve talked about the pros and cons of soup runs before and I don’t want to duplicate. I’m not writing this to be definitive of the issues but merely to spark a debate that has so far failed to ignite.
Who uses the soup runs?
There is agreement that most people who access the soup runs are not rough sleeping at that moment in time. In my experience, depending on the day of the week, the time of day and the location of the soup run there is considerable variation in the answer. This is a very rough analysis: Lincoln’s Inn Fields – evenings only, seven days a week from 7pm to 10.30pm – mainly regular groups (almost no rough sleepers Monday to Thursday, a few more but still forming a small minority Friday to Sunday when it operates near LSE. Most of the attendees I have talked to are permanently housed, some from squats, some from hostels); Strand – several mornings a week (7.30 ish) and every evening (7pm to 10/11pm although there is one group that comes fortnightly at midnight on a Thursday) – mornings are mostly regular groups, evenings a mixture with mainly regular groups and some who turn up occasionally or make a one-off drop of food on pavement (quite a few rough sleepers, a lot of people who have just accessed or are waiting to access the daycentre or nightshelter. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays the numbers swell considerably with the permanently housed and people from hostels coming to take advantage of the high concentration of runs offering hot food, most of which is boxed up for carrying away); Temple – evenings during the week about 7.30pm (split more equally between rough sleepers and the housed); Victoria several soup runs from 8pm to 10.30pm (similar in makeup to the Strand – in fact many of the people who go to the Strand also come here – and lots of people coming out of the cluster of hostels located in the immediate area – there is a considerably higher proportion of A10s using the soup runs here and that is one of the reasons that it has fallen out of favour with many of the British and Irish). There are other locations – Adam Street, Australian Embassy, Maltravers Street, and a couple of locations in Covent Garden that attract smallish numbers (though Maltravers Street – Simon Community two evenings a week – gets quite a crowd and so does Adam Street for the Chocolate Run Monday 9.30pm). The general rule of thumb is:
Early morning: almost all rough sleepers (apart from Strand which is affected by its location with consequent arrivals to daycentre and departures from nightshelter at that time)
Daytime: most people access daycentres and indoor soup kitchens for food and drink
Nighttime: mostly non-homeless
Does it matter that rough sleepers are being served alongside people who have permanent housing?
I think most soup runs are now aware that this is the case and they say it doesn’t affect their operation as they are willing to offer their service to anyone who feels the need for it. However, from the point of view of the rough sleepers it matters a very great deal. There is incredible resentment amongst the homeless at being served alongside people in permanent housing, particularly as so many of them are facing barriers in being housed themselves. I know of people that won’t attend the soup runs because they find the atmosphere intimidating. One of the biggest arguments that Housing Justice gives in their defence is that the soup runs are a vital system of support for engaging with rough sleepers and helping them connect to mainstream services. I can say for a fact that this very rarely happens. Only a very small handful of runs operate in this way. From my own point of view, ASLAN is the only soup run where volunteers have ever engaged me in conversation in my own right. There are others where people have said “Hello, how are you” in an exchange of pleasantries or where I have joined in a conversation between volunteers and other soup run attendees. Are the volunteers making value judgments about me that they are not qualified to make, is it that they scared of engaging with women, is it that they find it easier speaking to people from similar backgrounds to themselves? Whatever the reason for it, it negates the argument that they are operating an effective outreach system when they exclude in this way. I have heard of other exceptions – the Simon Community late night run where they take sandwiches and hot drinks round to rough sleepers who are already bedded down is spoken highly of by many and so is the late night Thursday run that operates on a fortnightly basis on the Strand at about midnight. There are probably others but, as I say, they form a small minority. Engagement seems to be much higher with the indoor soup kitchens where you have a chance to sit down for several hours, relax and open up.
The other major problem with the big soup runs that serve large crowds (in some cases over 200 people!) is that they take a long time to set up. That is time that you have to be standing around in the cold waiting. For someone who has just popped out from their warm home it doesn’t matter so much but for someone who has to stand around for a long time, causing their body temperature to drop, and then has to spend the rest of the night out on the streets it is extremely uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. This is the reason why I stopped attending most soup runs over the recent cold snap.
Another consideration is the bigger the crowd (and remember the bigger the crowd the less likely they are to be homeless) the more likely that fights will start and the security situation will deteriorate. It doesn’t happen every night but it happens enough to be a real problem. I haven’t ever seen a member of the public be involved in these skirmishes but I have seen other homeless get attacked (including suffering homophobic assaults and abuse) and I have seen and heard of volunteers being knocked over or hit.
Part three to follow…