Politics, soup and suffering

Yesterday (7 April 2011) Westminster City Council ignored the opposition and pressed ahead with plans for a by-law which will outlaw rough sleeping and mobile food distribution (i.e. soup runs) in a designated area around the Victoria station in London. Final decisions await a full Council meeting in May.

The Westminster City Council proposal has sharply polarised both public and Third Sector opinion. On the one side are a section of local residents and Conservative councillors. On the other are an eclectic but determined coalition of mobile food providers and soup-run guests. There are voluntary organisations on both sides of the divide, with starkly contrasting points of view.

So why should it matter that the soup should continue to flow in a populous patch of earth in central London? What does it mean in Harrogate, Cardiff, Glasgow and Nether-Puddle-on the-Marsh?

It would be one thing if Westminster City Council's proposed action were just an isolated outbreak of the 'bah humbug' tendency, but what begins as a Dickensian exception is in danger of becoming the rule. This debate isn't simply about the 'right' of soup runs to distribute free food or even the most appropriate ways to tackle rough sleeping. It is about who we think we are – what kind of community we want to be part of. What does 'public space' actually mean when sections of our population are fenced out, purged or hidden away like some disreputable eccentric relative?

This is why the supporters and cheerleaders of this ban are wrong. They imagine a respectable dystopian 'gated community' where the mad are safely incarcerated in asylums and poor people are meek, regulated and most of all, invisible.

The best available research which supports the value of well co-ordinated mobile food distribution (see Laura Lane and Anne Power, London School of Economics and Political Science, Soup Runs in Central London) flatly contradicts their position. Behind the apparently sensible arguments for the ban is the same politically sponsored violence that sees homeless people hosed down on the Strand.

Poverty has always been badly served by its own mythology. Notions of the 'scary poor' – dirty, feckless and frightening – are renewed generation by generation. If the 17th Century had their 'masterless men' (sic), we have a collection of Daily Mail or Daily Express grotesques – 'scroungers', migrant invasions and rampaging Travellers. These same newspapers are strangely silent on the legacy of the 'scary rich' – economic meltdown, social inequality, ecological devastation and democratic nominalism. Christians are not immune to these stereotypes. Official ecclesiastical response to the ban has been mixed.

It is a good time to remember that these practices – hospitality and almsgiving – didn't originate on the streets of Westminster with the soup runs. Christians have been doing these things for a long time, extending Jesus' scandalous open table to the marginal and the suffering. There is a need for better co-ordination of mobile food distribution but just because feeding the hungry or welcoming the stranger is direct doesn't make it naïve. If the politicians in Westminster have their way it will, it seems, also be subversive.

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(c) Phil Wood has a varied background uniting community development, social entrepreneurship, housing and Christian mission. Phil is a Mennonite but has a Methodist background. His blog is at: http://radref.blogspot.com/

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