I set out below two alternatives: the first is what I would call my ideal scenario and the second is what I suggest as an alternative to the current soup run practices if the proposed ban does not take effect.
There is no need for additional indoor food services for street homeless in Westminster. There is already sufficient provision in the whole of the borough. (I am taking the liberty of including the Simon Community street cafes as ‘indoor’ within this definition as they operate in a unique way and on private property).
The emphasis on dealing with street homeless should always be to move people on as swiftly as possible and so only the most basic needs must be provided for whilst they are on the streets so as not to encourage people to see living outside as a genuine and feasible alternative to finding accommodation and addressing the problems in their lives. That is why, although it is true that there is very little indoor provision in the evenings (although there is some), because we should all be aiming to move towards a system where people spend no more than a few nights sleeping out, organisations should design their services such as food and other facilities to only be available at a time when it is possible to also engage service users with the resources they need to move on. (Although evidently a lot of work needs to be done to make this possible at the weekend – of which more later.)
What the current charities providing soup runs could do as an alternative:-
• There will never be sufficient resources to provide a truly comprehensive street outreach service in London. With a little training and coordination, volunteers could comprehensively scout the streets of London and its parks, locating people who are currently being missed. Simon Community currently operates something similar in a very small part of Covent Garden. This could be expanded (through coordination between all the groups) to include the whole of London, providing a hot drink and a simple snack to people as a way of engaging and breaking the ice and then handing out information leaflets advising people of the services available to them, and the details of people encountered could then be relayed to mainstream outreach services who could follow up on it.
• Indoor soup kitchens are a fantastic way of reaching out to vulnerable and isolated people in the community. There is no need to concentrate so many duplicated services on one relatively small group of individuals (i.e. rough sleepers) when there are so many other people in our society in need of care and compassion.
• Could the charities coordinate in some way with the mainstream daycentres and local authorities to fill in some of the gaps that occur in weekend provision? As a small example, although not much can be actioned at the weekend, it might be a good opportunity for assistance with form filling or information gathering ready for Monday morning, helping people set up email accounts, providing advice and information on resources and services and all the other little background details that can take up a lot of time and cause delays during the week.
• It is true that some people suffer benefit delays and some (not all) of the indoor services charge a small fee for food and other facilities. Can charities work with these daycentres to raise money for some kind of voucher scheme that can pay for meals for people who are verified to be suffering benefit delays?
If Soup Runs Do Continue
This is what is needed:
• A system of licensing of soup runs renewable for time limited periods with the understanding that the long term goal is to move away from provision of food on the streets.
• Absolutely no goody bags handed out on streets. No soup run should aim to hand out more than a simple meal and hot drinks or soup. Pre-prepared bags of food containing sandwiches/biscuits/cakes/chocolate bars and crisps encourage large crowds of non-homeless.
• Soup runs should aim to engage with as many of the people who use the soup run as possible, checking on people’s welfare and informing people of services. If over time the numbers of people attending a soup run increases to the stage where it becomes very difficult to do this effectively, this should be taken as a sign that that particular soup run needs to completely re-evaluate the service it is providing and whether changes need to be made.
• No more than one soup run should operate at one mealtime in one location. (One mealtime meaning the whole period covering breakfast, the whole period covering lunch, etc. One location meaning, for example, the whole of Victoria, the whole of the Strand, the whole of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, etc.)
• No charity should operate a soup run outside of its own borough. No charity should be licensed to do the same.
• Soup runs that hand out clothes should be aware that they are being targeted by traders and should either seek a completely different method of providing clothing or should develop strategies for combating this.
• (This is a very personal one!) It would be greatly appreciated by many people if the soup runs could provide an alternative to ready-sweetened hot drinks.
I agree with the fact that the ban makes no sense if people have not been made a good offer of accommodation that is suitable for their needs. This has to be the absolute minimum. In fact if it weren’t offered, it’s clear that the byelaw could be quite easily challenged on human rights grounds.
I’m neutral on the size of the proposed enforcement area. I can think of things for and against. I note the arguments that it should stick to a very tight area around the piazza and that argument is very well-reasoned but I can also see that, in this particular scenario, if people are displaced one street away it will be into very residential areas and areas with hotels, which wasn’t quite the same scenario with Lincolns and the Bullring.