In the history of Quakerism, the distribution of soup, particularly to homeless people, was often a practical expression of faith.
This was the case in the Irish famine and in Germany in the twentieth century – but today in London, this simple act of charity has provoked a heated debate.
Homeless people in an area of central London face the prospect of a legal ban on rough sleeping and soup runs. Westminster Council is considering a by-law that would apply to a designated zone near Westminster’s Roman Catholic cathedral.
The news has turned a number of charities against the council and sparked a war of words, with two sides making contradictory claims about homelessness in the area.
A spokesperson for Westminster Council told the Friend that there have been police reports of violence and anti-social behaviour among large crowds queueing for food. He insisted: ‘It’s intimidating for local residents, particularly the elderly’.
David Coombe, chief executive of the Coombe Trust, maintained that his organisation’s regular soup run in the area is well organised and that there have been ‘zero incidents’ of intimidation. He told the Friend that he considers crowds leaving pubs and clubs to be more intimidating.
He acknowledged that some charities have problems with soup runs, but said this could be addressed with a code of conduct for groups distributing food.
David Coombe suggested the ban was due to ‘the royal wedding that’s happening and of course the Olympics next year’.
In response, the council said that the designated zone is not a strongly popular tourist area. The Coombe Trust maintain they are setting a precedent and are concerned that the zone may be extended.
Faith groups have joined the debate. Quaker Social Action, while working on longer-term approaches to poverty, said they see the value of soup runs and are opposed to the measure.
Alison Tomlin, president of Methodist Conference, argued that the proposed by-law ‘belongs in a Victorian statute-book, not in the laws of a decent twenty-first century community’.
Westminster’s spokesperson said: ‘There’s absolutely no need for people to be queueing for food’ because the area has ‘plenty of hostels’. David Coombe said that some homeless people stay away from hostels due to bad experiences of violence or theft.
The council told the Friend that they have been consulting with local charities over the issue for a decade. In contrast, Alastair Murray of the Christian network Housing Justice, which is supported by Quaker Peace & Social Witness, alleged that Westminster Council consistently ‘obstructs the efforts of churches and volunteer-led agencies reaching out to homeless and poor people on the streets’; but not all charities share his view.
St Mungo’s, a charity seeking to prevent homelessness, say they share local concerns about ‘the excessive number of soup runs’. But they also oppose moves to criminalise rough sleeping and any attempt to ‘stigmatise someone forced to sleep rough’.
With Westminster Council’s consultation due to end on 25 March, the by-law could come into force in October. The controversy may then move to the courts. The Coombe Trust is threatening to break the law, despite the possibility of a fine for each offence.
David Coombe told the Friend, ‘I feel so strongly, I will defy the ban and I will continue to defy the ban’.
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