What is the point of soup runs?

Last month saw a debate surrounding Westminster Council’s plan to stop soup runs in the vicinity of Westminster Cathedral. For a long time the Council has been concerned about the negative impact of a minority of the users, namely drinkers and drug users, on residents and visitors.

Charities have been divided on the Council’s plan. Some have opposed it arguing that the move will simply displace homeless people, possibly into unsafe areas, rather than fix anything. The only outcome would be to discourage people who are trying to solve social problems, or, in today’s language, be part of the Big Society. Other charities have been more sympathetic and appreciate that residents may have legitimate concern that need to be addressed. But these charities also insist that any plan to shut down the soup runs should not lead to an overall reduction of services to homeless people in the borough.

There are a number of issues that complicate the problem, such local autonomy vs. NIMBY-ism and whether an “out of sight, out of mind” approach is an appropriate way to address social problems. But the debate has been going on without any evidence (but with plenty of assertions) on the pros and cons of soup runs. Feeding hungry people undoubtedly meets a short-term need. But, as Jeremy Swain, chief executive of Thames Reach homelessness organisation, argues: ‘Street handouts do little to help people make the step away from rough sleeping…[but]…frequently prevent people from facing up to the reality of the harmful life-style they have adopted.’  (http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/6513857.article). And Daniel Astaire, Westminster Council’s cabinet member for society, families and adult services, claims that, “There is no need for anyone to sleep rough inWestminster as we have a range of services that can help them off the streets to make the first steps towards getting their lives back on track.”

But if Astaire’s claim is true, why there are still people lining up for food? Is the “range of services” provided by Westminster Council sufficient and appropriate? Are they suitable for everyone? How many people use the soup runs like an emergency service—temporarily to see them through a crisis—and for how many people has this become a way of life? Should these two (and other) groups be treated differently? The main problem is that, in spite of the valuable work being done by statutory and non-statutory agencies on reducing homelessness, we do not have robust enough data and analyses to answer questions like these.  Until we do, debates like this will simply pitch one set of preferences and prejudices against others rather than actually solve a problem.