Brian McLoughlin: Last week brought homeless soup runs to the forefront of the media as long-time soup runs The Homeless Street Café and Friends Helping Friends received visits from the HSE Environmental Health section prior to setting up their tables for the week. The HSE workers informed them that an inspection regarding food safety compliance was unsatisfactory. They were provided with a list of steps that need to be taken and informed that failure to comply “may result in formal enforcement action being initiated by the HSE”. These included a hand sanitising station, monitoring food temperatures and using HSE-approved kitchens. The HSE also informed them that they were being classified as a food business/charity despite being neither.
“There is no monetary gain for the soup runs, they just want to make a difference”
The story sparked a huge reaction from the public who recognised that the work is being done out of empathy and compassion for others. There is no monetary gain for the soup runs, they just want to make a difference. While appearing on RTE radio, Dr Bernard Hegarty from the FSAI said that some homeless service users are immune-compromised and that “a similar situation, for example, wouldn’t be acceptable in a prison kitchen again operating on a not for profit basis”. The comparison to a prison is striking as there are two major differences: the soup runs aren’t funded by the state, and even more importantly people using soup runs have committed no crime. Their crime is being homeless or living in food poverty. The fact that prisoners are allowed visitors and most people in emergency accommodation are not highlights the view taken of homeless people by those in authority.
“Where was the will to keep homeless people sanitised and safe last year?”
It is also telling to hear the HSE mention immune-compromised service users, yet that doesn’t stop service users being put into unsafe emergency accommodation where they share with other people. We don’t hear the HSE request that the DRHE provide safe and secure accommodation for rough sleepers who are immune-compromised and who are afraid to go into emergency accommodation. And during the last sixteen months, did the HSE mention the fact that people on the streets were unable to access hand sanitising facilities? In fact, our teams in ICHH had to bring sanitising equipment with them on outreach as homeless people had nowhere to go to wash their hands during the lockdowns. Where was the will to keep them sanitised and safe last year?
“One in five children in Ireland is living in poverty – that’s nearly 200,000 children”
The HSE and the State are missing the bigger picture. Hundreds of people are fed by these soup runs every week, adults and children alike, and with food poverty a huge issue in this country where are the alternatives for people to get a late evening meal? Are there new state-run services that would open to provide this service to people? The answer is no. So instead of tackling the much bigger issues, food poverty and homelessness, the solution is to move the soup runs out of sight and hope the problem goes away. It won’t. According to a report from Social Justice Ireland, one in five children in Ireland is living in poverty – that’s nearly 200,000 children. The report also estimates that the number of people in Ireland experiencing poverty is 630,000. Isn’t that a bigger issue that needs to be addressed?
“Who will feed Sam if the soup runs are forced to close?”
The Homeless Street Café went viral a couple of years ago with a picture of Sam (not his real name) aged five who was pictured eating a hot meal off cardboard on the street. The picture sparked outrage and we got the usual lip service from the government as the issue was brought up in the Dail. Faux outrage from the people that have the power to change that. To the HSE and the government, I ask you this: is it worse to see Sam eating his dinner from a soup run on the street or Sam not having any dinner at all? Sam is one of many children attending these soup runs, one of the many children who have built relationships with these incredible volunteers. Who will feed Sam if the soup runs are forced to close? Do they realise that, when schools closed due to Covid, it meant no more breakfast club or school dinners for children in emergency accommodation? Of course not, that would be the compassionate way of looking at it.
“Volunteers are priceless”
And then there are the volunteers. The people who give up their time, and often their own money, to cook meals for the soup runs. The people who want to help, who want a fairer Ireland for everyone. Denise from the Homeless Street Café spoke of one of her volunteers who collects her pension every week and uses the money to buy supplies for sandwiches. Will the HSE want to inspect that lady’s kitchen? Is that how far they’re willing to take this? Volunteering is defined by Volunteer Ireland as “the commitment of time and energy, for the benefit of society, local communities, individuals outside the immediate family and the environment and other causes. Voluntary activities are undertaken of a person’s own free will, without payment”. Volunteer Ireland states that there are approximately one million volunteers in Ireland. Volunteers who are saving the state millions of euro every year, volunteers who want to make a difference, volunteers who want to help people less fortunate than them. Driven by nothing but empathy and a wish for a fairer society. We have a motto in ICHH: never look down on someone unless you’re helping them up. That motto is enforced by our incredibly dedicated volunteer base of over 200 people. Volunteers are priceless and our country would be a much worse place without them.
“Where will it end, will children doing a bake sale to raise funds for a charity be next?”
This begs the question as to why services won’t work with the soup runs. Why not offer them use of a HSE-approved kitchen, of which there are many that are state-funded, and use their skills to improve things on the street? The volunteers at these soup runs have built friendships with the people they serve every week. They have an ability to build relationships in a way that state services can’t. They have a unique skill set that would be a huge asset to the DRHE, and despite this the mission seems to be to close them down. I was delighted to hear Louisa Santoro from the Mendicity Institute say she would offer their HSE-approved kitchen to the soup runs to use. This is looking for solutions, this is working with the soup runs to keep their services going. Why didn’t the DRHE and HSE do this? I would imagine the HSE and DRHE will be inundated with Freedom of Information requests. Requests asking who initiated these inspections? How many reports of food poisoning from a soup run have been reported to the HSE or DRHE? In my six years with ICHH I haven’t heard of one case of food poisoning from a soup run. Home-made food cooked with love. The complete contrast to some of the meals served up in homeless accommodation and Direct Provision centres, where the services are well-paid to provide a good meal yet fail to do so. Are they checked on a regular basis? Are people selling food in markets across the country every weekend inspected as well? Where will it end, will children doing a bake sale to raise funds for a charity be next? It is bureaucracy at its worst.
Mahatma Gandhi said of volunteering “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”. One million volunteers across the country understand this – if only the HSE, DRHE and Government did the same.
You can show your support for the soup runs by getting involved on social media using the hashtag #SavetheSoupRuns
Brian McLoughlin is Head of Communications for Inner City Helping Homeless and one of the four contributors to Unite’s Take Four group blog, along with Conor McCabe, Ber Grogan and Laura Broxson.