The Soup Run
‘The homeless are what you step over when you come out of the opera,’ said a Tory baronet in the early 1990s. Are they really? The beauty of this belief, for those who subscribe to it, is that it removes all traces of humanity from the homeless. They are a momentary obstacle and therefore not something we need to concern ourselves with.
Yet to me the most striking thing about the homeless is their humanity. They have nothing else left. Human nature is there in front of us when we see a homeless person and we might not like it but they are a reflection of us, stripped of our status and material trappings.
I’m always astonished when people talk about the homeless as if they’ve ended up on the streets as a result of their own stupidity or fecklessness. Aren’t our lives potentially just as precarious? A couple of missed mortgage payments, a punitive marital breakup, a descent into mental illness and we might suddenly discover that it’s not the sturdy walls of our houses that divide us from the dispossessed but a flimsy curtain, ripped away so bewilderingly quickly that we find ourselves catapulted into oblivion quicker than Dorothy was whirled out of Kansas. How can anyone see a homeless person and not think, there but for the grace of God go I? Sometimes the only thing that distinguishes us is luck. Yes, I know there are people who say security and success are solely down to hard work and luck has nothing to do with it, but that feeds into the fecklessness myth once again. It must be bloody hard work being homeless, day in, day out. The ones I see generally look exhausted. It’s hardly a lifestyle choice for the idle.
It’s no more helpful, though – to us or to them – than the opera argument if we look upon the homeless as a constant reminder of the fragility of our lives. It’s bound to make us reluctant to look at them at all. But I think we need to take a closer look, and find something we like to see – for our sake and for theirs. The first step in acknowledging their humanity is to see them as individuals. Even grouping them together as ‘the homeless’ seems reductive (what are we – the housed?). If they are individuals, like us, what is to stop us reaching out to them?
Well, fear of the unknown plays a big part, and I am as guilty of that as anyone. But once every few months I help out on the soup run, organised by local churches (I am not a churchgoer, but they kindly let me get involved). Every evening, regular volunteers gather at the side of a car park with soup, coffee, sandwiches and homemade cakes. A handful of ‘clients’, as the church respectfully refers to them, are generally there waiting for us, with others turning up moments later. To me, it seems a measure of its success that this event doesn’t feel like charity – though of course I have no idea if the clients view it the same way. Despite the fact that there are always one or two who have been drinking, some almost certainly have mental health issues and, I imagine, every single one has problems we can only guess at, they somehow make the transaction seem quite natural, taking our food politely but without deference or awkwardness. We’re not quite benefactors, not quite staff, not quite acquaintances – perhaps a surprisingly comfortable mixture of all three.
My job is to make the soup. Early that afternoon, I pull down my catering-sized stockpot from a dusty shelf and cook piles of vegetables in it, cutting them unusually small because this soup will be drunk from polystyrene cups rather than eaten with a spoon. Mindful that our clients’ usual diet might be quite monotonous, I aim to give the soup a jolt of flavour – a dusting of paprika and some diced chorizo; a ham hock and a dollop of salsa verde; a couple of fillets of smoked haddock; or a good dousing of homemade pesto. If this sounds fanciful, I can tell you that a vat of soup that feeds thirty usually costs around a tenner. And that I serve it to an extremely appreciative clientele. There are always a few who stop to chat about it – ‘Has this got coriander in? I love coriander’; ‘This is a cullen skink – I used to make that when I worked as a chef’ – and hardly any of them leave without telling me how much they enjoyed it, with many coming back for seconds. Without exception, they make a point of thanking me, and let me tell you, when you’re used to cooking for your children it is a joy to be thanked.
It’s usually over in forty-five minutes or so. Last time I was there, on a hot, dusty evening, I looked at our clients and realised that I was getting to recognise the regulars. There’s John, an elderly man, wrapped in numerous layers of clothing even in high summer, who speaks in the cultured tones and sophisticated vocabulary of an arts-programme presenter, yet whose conversation veers off at unexpected tangents that leave you wondering what on earth to reply (it doesn’t matter; he rarely registers what you say). There’s a young girl who looks like your average backpacker – should she even be here? But she’s not on a gap year, she’s travelling aimlessly around because she has little choice. There’s a man of about forty, tall, weatherbeaten, with thick, wavy, auburn hair, who looks as if he could be a gentleman farmer until he opens his mouth and you see the brown stumps of his teeth. Teeth are a giveaway for almost all of them, a clue to how long they’ve been part of this loose grouping of rootless individuals, with nothing in common but their fall from grace. I’ve said that they are polite to us and that’s the truth, but when they talk amongst themselves their language gets ‘a little fruity’, as a volunteer warned me the first time I helped out. In my brief encounters with them, I see a tiny tip of the iceberg of their lives – their somewhat random behaviour, visibly poor health and state of dress are immediate clues to what those lives are like – but it really heartens me that the part of themselves they reveal to me in our limited interaction is polite, appreciative and good natured. I’ve seen wealthy people behave much worse.
The pleasure I get from helping out with the soup run is tempered by wondering whether it proves the theory that altruism is essentially a selfish act. But, as a co-volunteer pointed out, we might choose to be generous for our own selfish ends but, at the end of the day, if you give someone a sandwich at least they’ve had a sandwich. I want to find the time – and the courage – to help out more, perhaps mentoring or getting involved in a literacy programme. Homelessness is a dreadful tear in the fabric of our society and we should be extremely angry on behalf of its victims. Yet it’s hard to get angry on behalf of ‘something you step over when you come out of the opera’. Much easier when you allow yourself some interaction with those victims – the church’s clients – and discover that the chances are you will get back what you give.
A footnote: if you have enjoyed reading this, please consider donating to The Genesis Trust (www.genesistrust.org.uk). It has an impressive programme of support for socially vulnerable people in Bath.