By Liam Smillie, Commissioned Piece by Rachel Laughlin
The doors to the St. Brides soup kitchen open at 6 o’clock in the evening to the needy of Motherwell, as they have done every Tuesday evening for the last year and a half. St. Brides hall lies on fairly unassuming ground, the only other building of note upon Coursington road being Our Lady of Good Aids Cathedral, at this time in the day; the street is fairly quiet.
Short greetings and niceties are exchanged outside the modest hall to the backdrop of passing cars from a nearby overpass, the two assigned doormen cast an inviting atmosphere at the entrance, Tom, a large yet reserved man, and Jim, a much shorter, more talkative man. The two men know every regular visitor by name, and are sure to greet any newcomer with open arms.
Over the next half an hour guests begin to spill in from the streets, making their way through the empty corridors until they arrive in a large function hall. On an average night the soup kitchen hosts around twenty five people, and this night was no different than any other, the tables had been set by a small group of volunteers just one hour beforehand.
All food is bought and prepared by the fully-trained voluntary chef, Scott who sets a budget of £35 for the week, which is fully paid for by the church. Anne is the head of the operation and organises all aspects of the kitchen. In addition to the food brought in by Scott, the kitchen receives donations from the congregation which allows them to offer surplus products for guests to take home. One such patron of the kitchen is Warburtons, who donate 5 loaves of bread per week. Despite the large number of donations, there are worries about the quality of the food provided, the stock room is filled to the brim with cheap cans of soup and other food items with low nutritional content.
Most nights there are around 12 volunteers, an eclectic group with a shared and directed altruism for the operation. While the kitchen is hosted by the catholic diocese, the beliefs of the individuals in the group vary widely, with numerous protestants and atheists volunteering alongside catholics. The group runs on the policy that absolutely anyone is allowed – no questions asked – the majority of visitors to the kitchen are not homeless, but live below the poverty line, and suffer from personal troubles like addiction. It is a common occurrence for the guests to come in drunk or high, but they too are welcome as long as they don’t cause any trouble.
By half past six, most guests for the night have arrived. The atmosphere of the hall seemed bleak, a tinny speaker in the far corner of the room played Dean Martin at a barely audible volume. However, the topic of conversation tonight was the universal credit system, which seemingly affected everyone in attendance.
The topic got particularly heated at one table, which sat Mark and Stephen, a pair of friends who came in together every week. As Mark anxiously rocked wide-eyed in his chair, sipping occasionally at a tall glass of dilutant juice, Stephen spoke loudly to the seated group;
“The government doesn’t have a fucking clue what they’re doing” he raises an arm and gestures to the room “You’d find more discipline in here”.
An older, rougher looking man named Victor sat at an adjacent table began to shout, waving his arms emphatically and put an abrupt end to others conversations;
“It’s those Polish beggars coming in, claiming benefits and fucking over people like me.”
The only response his shouting drew from those sitting around him was silence, so he continued. Victor is on universal credit – his rent went unpaid during the switch-over between the old benefits system and universal credit. He now faces a court date next week for the missed payment, something he claimed was out of his hands.
Sat at the same table was Pamela, a soft-spoken woman who also claims universal credit. She works in care on top of looking after her ill mother and sister with Down syndrome. Unlike other voices in the room, Pamela did not speak with any vitriol, but rather a profound sadness and acceptance of her situation. Much like Victor, she was told her rent would be paid by the government during the switch-over, however her rent went unpaid and she has been evicted, now being forced to move in with her struggling mother.
A tired looking woman named Chanelle entered the hall at around 7 o’clock, just as everyone has finished their dinner, and sat at a table near the back of the hall. Chanelle has had no electricity in her home for the past two weeks. She has not had a payment since December 8th thanks to the change over from the traditional benefits system to universal credit. She only recently got access to the internet and was assisted in submitting her application for universal credit today, she will now have to wait another month and a half until she receives her first payment.
Victor then began to speak of food banks and the stigma surrounding them. He had major reservations about attending food banks. He believes that you have no idea what the atmosphere is going to be like and, if for example, you went to the Hamilton food bank, you’d be running out the door within 10 minutes. He elaborates that the staff are condescending and the general vibe of the food bank is terrifying to him.
Chanelle begins to talk about her experience the previous night, walking to Greggs at three in the morning to receive their surplus stock, she was verbally assaulted when a group of men started yelling slurs at her, recounting one shouting ‘filthy beggar’. Chanelle feels like she has no other choice, she is starving and is in vital need of the charity that the kitchen provides, she states;
‘I have no reservations about coming to the kitchen, they feed you, make you feel welcome and treat you with respect, people are worried that they’ll see someone they know at a soup kitchen but if they do it’s because they’re in the same boat, without the soup kitchen, I might not be living.’
As Chanelles spoke of the positivity of food banks and our cultures perspective on them, I couldn’t help but think of the photographs pinned to the wall in the kitchen, of several young men at Christmas, covering their faces with their tracksuit tops as the volunteers smiled around them.