Life for the homeless in the Peterborough Soup Kitchen queue

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What's life like for the homeless? Joanna Borrett spent the evening with volunteers from Peterborough Soup Kitchen to find out:

What's life like for the homeless? Joanna Borrett spent the evening with volunteers from Peterborough Soup Kitchen to find out:"Go ahead," said the man, indicating the front of the queue with a chivalrous gesture.

It was a warm evening and we were standing next to Peterborough Soup Kitchen's van, where they'd just started serving sandwiches.

I felt awkward explaining to him that I was only a journalist writing an article about the homeless. I asked if he thought some of the people in the queue would be prepared to talk to me about their lives.

I already knew that homelessness can happen to almost anyone. Divorce, loss of employment, bereavement, depression, eviction, poverty, an unloving or unsupportive family... any of these can lead to such a situation and the painful loss of confidence and self respect which often follow.

I'd just come from the kitchen at Millfield Community Centre, where I'd watched three of the soup kitchen's volunteers prepare the food.

"We provide soup, sandwiches, tea and coffee once a day for anyone who asks for it," said team leader Carlos Dominguez as he stirred ingredients into a huge tureen.

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"Usually between 30 and 70 people turn up, both men and women of all ages. Peterborough Soup Kitchen has 28 teams, and most of our volunteers work just one evening a month. No one gets paid, there's no official office and we're entirely dependent on subsidies."

Like most of the volunteers, Carlos finds it easy to empathise with the homeless. "I first became aware of the problem a few years ago when I was living in London," he continued.

"I worked near the largest soup kitchen in the country, where about 300 people congregated every day to be fed, and when I travelled to the office early each morning it was impossible to miss the meths drinkers under Waterloo Bridge being moved on by police.

"The wealth disparity in the city was striking. We may have a social security system, but it only takes a few small things to go wrong for you to find yourself homeless. If you aren't classed as 'priority need' the council are not obliged to house you, and, unless there are mitigating circumstances, single adults and couples without children do not fall into the priority category."

Although the kitchen and store room where the volunteers are working is pretty basic, the atmosphere is warm and chatty. As volunteer Helen Porter continues making sandwiches she describes to me her feelings about the job.

"No matter how long you've been doing this, the situation affects you. When our van arrives people appear suddenly. Some seem to have literally come out of the bushes, others look like they've been mugged."

Ian's story

"I'D been homeless for a while, but at last I've got a more permanent place at a hostel and I'm trying to sort myself out. The soup kitchen is brilliant. I can't believe they provide food for free every day.

"They've got endless patience, even when it's crowded and there's a lot of pushing. For the hungry and desperate they're an absolute God send.

"I was in prison in Leicester for 13 months and took heroin when I came out, but now I'm on methadone and diazepam and I've been clean for nearly two years. I'm hoping it stays that way. It's hard; the dealers prey on the vulnerable, trying to take what

little money they have – they're always hanging around.

"There are so many people literally sleeping on the streets, and when you do that you're vulnerable to attacks, which are usually alcohol induced. But the support in Peterborough is terrific – better than in any other city. It needs to be. I go to St Theresa's in the day and sometimes I think I've never seen so many homeless people in my life."

"Once I watched a man spill soup on the floor and rats instantly appeared and started to drink it.

"When the weather gets colder people sometimes ask for clothes, but we haven't got any. We can tell them to go to the Salvation Army or St Theresa's (homeless day care centre) the next day, but there's nothing we can do for that night.

"It's humbling. I drive home afterwards and know how lucky I am. It's very grounding. "

When the soup and sandwiches are ready we load the van and drive to Bright Street car park to serve up. I hover around outside and am pleased that people don't seem to resent me asking questions.

A group of Poles come up, one translating tentatively, and explain that they travelled to England to get work but haven't been successful and are sleeping rough because they aren't eligible for social benefits.

Later on, Carlos tells me that 90 per cent of Peterborough's homeless are from Eastern Europe, often tempted to

England by false promises from gang masters who take their identification papers and money when they arrive and leave them with nothing. Even more disturbingly, the other fastest growing group of homeless people are British teenagers.

After about three quarters of an hour the volunteers pack up and we drive home to warmth and security. I think of the Poles I spoke to, now heading for a street somewhere. I think of the homeless teenagers feeling lost and unloved at the very start of their lives.

"Homelessness comes about through a major change of circumstances and not having access to the right kind of help when you're vulnerable," I remember Carlos saying.

Peterborough Soup Kitchen is providing some of that help. And at sometime in our lives, which of us hasn't been vulnerable?

Sainsbury's joins the cause

As part of its 140th birthday celebrations, the Bretton branch of Sainsbury's chose Peterborough Soup Kitchen as its charity of the year. In the first three months the supermarket

has already raised 2,000 and donated more than 2,500 worth of food.

Chairman of Peterborough Soup Kitchen Stephen Giblin, said: "We can honestly say we've been staggered at the generous response from both staff and customers at Sainsbury's, and can't thank all concerned enough."

One of Peterborough Soup Kitchen's main priorities is to raise 18,000 over the next six months to replace the van it uses to feed the homeless, which it will have to fit out to stringent health and safety regulations. Here's how you can help:

To help purchase a new van, please send a cheque, made payable to Peterborough Soup Kitchen, PO Box 245, Peterborough PE3 9DW. All donations will go to this project.

To volunteer at Peterborough Soup Kitchen, leave a message on 01733 315456 or e-mail membership@

To make a food donation, leave a message on 01733 315456. The soup kitchen needs canned stewing steak, corned beef, luncheon meat, ham , tuna, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, soups as well as sweet and savoury biscuits, instant coffee, cheese, UHT milk and sugar.

To help the homeless get back to work, buy The Big Issue.

To donate furniture, call St Theresa's House – the day care centre for the homeless – on 01733 893762 or 01733 894989