Spaces of Care – the banning of soup kitchens

There is an extensive literature on “spaces of care” i.e. “socio-spatial field[s] disclosed through practices of care that take place between individuals” (Conradson, 2003; 508). Such spaces can be found in a range of settings: care homes for the elderly, day centres for the homeless, hospitals.

I have been grappling for some time without making much progress (those at the ReValuing Care conference in Adelaide will recognise these concerns from my paper there) with the treatment of a particular space of care – the soup kitchen. My reason for this interest was prompted by the attempts made by Westminster City Council in 2011 to outlaw soup kitchens in an area of London around Westminster Cathedral close to Victoria station.

One of the distinguishing features of the soup kitchen is that the space of care is an outdoor public space. This means that they are often viewed negatively by both local residents and local authorities. At the Adelaide conference I asked three questions which I would still welcome any help or suggestions in answering.

The first question relates to the nature of care offered by a soup kitchen. In an era where charitable and not for profit organisations are increasingly incorporated into the delivery of state care there is a view that “support agencies are increasingly accepting of the use of enforcement in some circumstances, in a desperate attempt to improve the quality of life of their clients and reduce any negative impact their activities might have on other people if/when all other approaches have failed” (Johnsen and Fitzpatrick, 2010; 1717).

By contrast providers of soup kitchens tend to fall outside the corporatist contracting mode of delivery of services. They are often provided by faith groups “attempting to articulate a theo-ethical sense of agape and caritas, a genuine openness to and an outpouring of unconditional love towards the other” (Cloke et al 2010; 99). In this “[s]oup runs tend to be noninterventionist, accepting of difference, and aim to bestow upon individuals the dignity to just ‘be’ without demanding anything in return” (Johnsen et al 2005; 329). This puts them very much at odds with government policy.

So my first question is whether we should distinguish between these two forms of care? What, if anything, is special about care which is delivered by non-professionals who are not demanding change from the recipient?

However, even if we see a positive in this rejection of a coercive form of care, can the soup kitchen do more than offer a compassionate but “ultimately degrading construal of the homeless as helpless victims” (Feldman, 2004; 92). Given its delivery of food in an outdoor setting does the soup kitchen do no more than simply help keep the homeless alive or does the “outpouring of unconditional love” referred to above provide something worthwhile in and of itself?

Finally, my last question relates to the long history of the soup kitchen which have been with us since the middle ages. Westminster’s attempts to outlaw soup kitchens were ultimately put on hold. But in an age of ever increasing control of public space why does the soup kitchen prove so resilient?

Professor Caroline Hunter, York Law School, University of York

caroline.hunter@york.ac.uk

References

Cloke P, May J. and Johnsen S. (2010) Swept up lives: Re-envisioning the homeless city Chichester: Wiley­Blackwell

Conradson D. (2004) Spaces of care in the city: the place of a community drop-in centre, Social & Cultural Geography, 4:4, 507-525

Feldman L.C. (2004) Citizens without shelter: homelessness, democracy and political exclusion Ithica: Cornell University Press

Johnsen S., Cloke P. and May J. (2005) “Transitory spaces of care: serving homeless people on the street” Health & Place 11, 323-336

Johnsen S. and Fitzpatrick S. (2010) “Revanchist Sanitisation or Coercive Care? The Use of Enforcement to Combat Begging, Street Drinking and Rough Sleeping in England” Urban Studies 47(8), 1703-1723

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