The inviting aromas and bright lights of soup vans across the country signal not just a place where homeless and disadvantaged people can get a warm meal, but also a place to find company, compassion and conversation.
In St Kilda, a beachside suburb of Melbourne, the Nourish soup van has been operating since March 2016. Nourish is a project of Temple Beth Israel, a progressive Jewish society based in the same suburb, with support from charity the Father Bob Maguire Foundation, which provides meals to anyone in need.
Volunteer coordinator Ellen Frajman tells SBS Food that the advice they received from Father Bob when they were starting out was that food was just one reason why homeless and disadvantaged people visit soup vans.
"A lot of people, as much as they need the food, they need the social interaction just as much," Frajman explains.
Nourish serves soups, vegetarian meals, salads, bread, fruit, dessert and coffee and tea to an average of 40 people per outing. Because Nourish follows Kosher practise, they use their kitchen for milk, but not meat.
One of the principles of Nourish is that no one who asks for a meal is questioned; it's simply available to anyone.
"Something that Father Bob told us when we were setting up is - because we were stationed opposite a gym and we wondered what would happen if people from across the street comes over, what do we do - and they said, you don't ask any questions. If someone lines up for a meal, we give them a meal."
That sort of policy provides a welcome environment that makes the ability for people to talk freely and feel comfortable possible.
Jenny Smith, executive officer of the Council to Homeless Persons, says that isolation and lack of community can have a huge impact on homeless people.
"People who provide food on the street provide an important compassionate service in our community, both for people who are sleeping rough and also for people who are living in marginal circumstances; they might have a home, but because they are paying so much money on rent, are unable to afford nutritious food," she says.
"Some people, who do manage to get a home, do go back to the food vans in the streets because of the relationships they’ve formed and for that social connection. It's often the pathway out of homelessness for a lot of people because of those relationships; they provide options."
"People who provide food on the street provide an important compassionate service in our community, both for people who are sleeping rough and also for people who are living in marginal circumstances."
Frajman has witnessed the same pattern, with many of Nourish's clients being regulars for the past four years.
“We had one man who was always the first to arrive and the last to leave, and he came from Springvale [about 20km away]. He would make that long trip because he needed the food but it was also the social interaction; it was a place where he could be.”
She adds that many clients have gotten to know each other and struck up friendships, which provided them with their own sense of community and belonging.
"Lots of our volunteers also really enjoy talking to clients and getting to know them. Lots of them know my name and the other volunteer's names, and that's really important for everyone," she says. "You don't realise, until you're out there, how important that is."
"When people see someone sitting on the street asking for money, they might stop to give them something, but they don't stop to talk to them properly.
"We talk to them just like anyone else, call them by name, and if we haven't seen them for a couple of weeks, we ask 'where were you?' or 'we missed you'. I think that's important that they know that someone cares about them."
Photo by Philip Shannon under a Flickr Creative Commons licence.
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