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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 December 2007, 00:40 GMT
Do soup kitchens help the homeless?
By Lissa Cook
Radio 5 Live Report

As charities launch their annual drive to help the homeless at Christmas, Westminster Council in central London is pursuing plans to ban soup kitchens from its streets. It has won some surprising support.

Gary is one of an estimated 500 people who sleep rough every night in England.

People sleeping rough

"It's really horrendous. Believe me, it's freezing," he says.

"You go to bed freezing and you wake up shaking in the morning. And that's even with a sleeping bag. And you see people without sleeping bags, and they're just shaking all night. They don't sleep."

Charities estimate that in London over the course of a year, 3,000 people will spend the night on the streets.

For them Gary believes the soup kitchen is a life saver. "It's vital because most people would die if they didn't have soup runs."

But according to Westminster City Council, soup kitchens are drawing former rough sleepers out of hostels and back onto the streets.

When you see 50 to 80 people waiting for a soup run, they are not homeless people by and large
Westminster councillor Angela Harvey

Conservative Angela Harvey, the council's cabinet member for housing, objects to the large numbers of volunteers who converge on central London to hand out free food and drinks to the homeless.

She says up to 50 soup kitchens come into Westminster from elsewhere.

"They come from Northamptonshire, from Harlow, from other places into the centre of London when we know they have homeless needs in their own neighbourhood."

Are these people really saying that a free bowl of soup attracts people into becoming homeless, and even more ludicrously, if it is withdrawn they will magically find a home and fix all their problems?
David, Bracknell

"When you see 50 to 80 people waiting for a soup run, they are not homeless people by and large.

"The majority will not be rough sleepers... you see them going off with large carrier bags stuffed full of food which is for them and their house mates. We know they are in work and housed."

Attempted ban

Westminster has already tried to implement a ban through the new London Local Authorities Bill. That failed last month when other London councils refused to back it, but Westminster is determined to press ahead one way or another.

I don't think anyone seriously faced with the choice of coming into a hostel will stay on the street because of a soup run
London Mayor Ken Livingstone

The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, questioned Westminster's motives.

"I don't think anyone seriously faced with the choice of coming into a hostel will stay on the street because of a soup run," he said.

"And the idea with all the other problems we've got, with crime, that we should have police diverted to seizing their soup is just bizarre.

"I think this was just another: 'Can we move the poor on from Westminister?'"

What is surprising is that Westminster Council has been backed by an unlikely coalition of homeless charities and even some former rough sleepers.

'Upside down' priorities

The founder of the Big Issue magazine John Bird, who spent years living rough, also believes that soup runs keep people on the streets.

We feed our homeless people on the streets. It is barbaric
Big Issue founder John Bird
"We wouldn't want to feed our dogs on the streets. There would be an outcry if there was a law that came out tomorrow, saying everyone had to feed their dogs on the streets. But we feed our homeless people on the streets. It is barbaric."

He says the current row highlights the topsy turvy attitude of how Britain deals with the people who survive on the streets night after night.

"The priority should be getting people off the streets altogether. Ninety per cent of all money spent on homelessness is spent on emergency, only 10% is spent on cure. We've got it upside down," he says.

House price worries

A government drive to reduce homelessness has helped bring down the numbers sleeping rough by around two thirds, but recent bad economic news - notably the slide in house prices - has rung alarm bells.

The homeless charity Crisis, whose Christmas centres open this weekend, warns that homelessness can affect anyone. It warns that even if you have a good job, things can go wrong quickly.

A recent survey showed one in five people said it would only take a month for an unexpected drop in income to have a knock-on effect on their housing.

Most people wrongly assume there is a safety net, but only people with children are likely to qualify for emergency accommodation.

Former rough sleeper Mark Johnson says it really can happen to any one of us: "We're all prone to that - you know all of us - a breakdown in a relationship, or some sort of trauma or a death or a tragic event - we're all there, much closer than we care to realise."

He remembers hearing a very similar view from a city hedge fund manager: "He said in a very quiet conversation we had: 'Do you know what, I know that I'm only ever a couple of bad decisions away from being on the street myself,' and I thought that was a really good insight into being in this world because everyone is."

Five Live Report: The Big Soup Issue can be heard at 1930 GMT on 23rd December. You can listen again or get the podcast at Five Live Report website

Homeless person defends soup kitchens

Plan to limit soup runs dropped
16 Nov 07 |  London


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