Homelessness and hunger are two things that have a stranglehold on modern society. The basic right to have somewhere safe to sleep and something warm to eat is a notion very few of us truly appreciate.
That’s no fault of our own - it’s hard to imagine or comprehend a life oneself has never lived, although I do believe we find it impossible to imagine because we simply can’t. It’s not the hunger we can’t imagine, we’ve all been starving once - even if our next meal was round the corner. It’s not the cold we can’t imagine - we’ve all be caught a layer short or wish we’d worn a bigger coat.
What we can’t imagine - mainly because we’ve been blessed as such - is the desperation, the lack of humanity, the continual swallowing of your own pride because your desire to eat something sustaining far outweighs ones need to maintain dignity.
For many, that is something they simply won’t swallow, the typically British ‘stiff upper lip’ as it were. It’s the refusal to accept assistance, it’s the inability to get help or a deadly combination of the two that perpetuates something that is already at epidemic levels, costing lives.
That’s why places like Sunderland Community Soup Kitchen are so integral to conquering the shortcomings of society and the greed-driven capitalist structures it has been built upon for multiple years. In a society where we are all just a bag of skin with a pound sign on it to those above us, Andrea and her amazing team offer more than just food and clothes - they offer genuine compassion. It is compassion too, it’s not a patronising pat on the head with an “aww aren’t you a poor little thing” thrown in there - it’s someone standing in the wind, rain and snow offering a smiling face and a helping of hope.
When I stood beside people who had been inhumanely reduced to the indignity of queuing outside a church just to get a hot meal I expected to find all sorts, but what I didn’t expect to find was a community. Carers, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, young, old and everything in between were drawn to a warm glow ruminating from the doorway of the kitchen, together bound by desperation, starvation and hope.
As Gav and I spoke with those outside, what immediately struck us was how flawed the current system is. People at a low, often at times through no fault of their own, are pigeon-holed into convenient categories to ease the apparent burden they are to the authorities and systems that should be supporting them.
These systems, benefits or otherwise, were put into place many moons ago to support the weakest in society, the dream was ultimately to use the wealth of others to eradicate poverty. Instead what these systems do, from PIP or Universal Credit, is systematically degrade people above all else.
The processes to access even the most basic of help are complicated, time-consuming and filled with hoops very few can jump through. They’re filled with rules and limitations, unrealistic expectations of what is achievable on so little. As one man put it when applying to access even the most basic of help, ”they want to know everything, from what your favourite song is to the colour of your underwear, then they share all of that information”, and that’s telling of the dehumanisation these systems cause.
When you’re at a low, begging for help, the last thing anyone needs is to be interrogated about every choice they made that led them to the point they find themselves at - it’s akin to some kind of mental torture to relive every mistake, every unfortunate event and every let down someone has experienced. The systems designed to aid only further perpetuate someone’s decline and remove their humanity. At the point of access, these people cease to become people and instead become a number or a figure, a quantifiable entity of which they are no longer judged on who they are, but the cost of the help they need.
That’s why the Soup Kitchen is so important. Many of us, myself included, naively assumed that this place was just a hot meal when in fact it is so, so much more.
The community it provides is as important as the food and clothes. These people, these wonderful volunteers provide more than just sustenance on a daily basis, they are harbingers of hope and humanity.
The Kitchen isn’t just an in and out job, it’s a place where people who are hurting can unload their troubles but more importantly, somewhere where they can be listened to. Everyone has a story. What Andrea and her team give these people is something your donations can’t quantify - you can’t put a value on hope, especially not in the abundance its served up here. This place is free at the point of contact - no intrusive questions, no demands for information, what it is first and foremost is somewhere that treats these people like human beings. For some, it’s the only time of day they’ll be treated as such.
What is quantifiable here is the effort put in by the volunteers, that comes in by the bucket. The enthusiasm and dedication shown too is beyond comparison. On a Saturday they count the tins, the pairs of socks, the rice, the pasta and whatever else is passed through the humble doorway to the side of the church from which the kitchen operates.
Then, you can count the meals that leave the door into the hands of the needy, the desperate but ultimately the grateful. When you count them you’ll find the meals go out in their thousands every week. You too can count the people whom - whether their first visit or their hundredth - approach the door tentatively, guided by the beacons of light that scatter outwards onto the pavement beside the building.
The key here is that everything else is quantifiable - from the gas so the food can be cooked, the money the volunteers chip in when the stocks are running low, to the electric that facilitates that familiar click of the kettle boiling over. Everything here needs money in some capacity, bar the amazing people who donate not only their time but part of their soul to this. You can’t enter into this diminutive vestibule and exit it anything other than humbled, heartbroken and determined.
A chilling description of what it’s like to need these services was afforded to me wonderfully by the lovely Sam Whyte, speaking from her own experience in a perfect way to encapsulate the emotional stress these people suffer.
Being skint or homeless is an isolating experience. I’ve been both.
When you’re forced to ask for help the shame gets into your bones; you feel fundamentally weak and wrong and broken. But when you reach out to a food bank or soup kitchen, the dynamic is fundamentally different - they’re offering solidarity not pity; it’s a hand up whilst acknowledging the disgrace of the fifth largest economy in the world letting people go hungry.
When you give donate to these causes you’re not simply offering food to someone who’s hungry but humanity to someone who’s been made to feel inherently worthless.
Our football clubs are the beating heart of our community and Sunderland Community Soup Kitchen and Sunderland Food Banks are helping elevate and include every member of that community.
I don't think there’s any weight that I nor anyone else who hasn’t experienced being on the opposite side of the counter can add to that sentiment either.
Ultimately, what Gav and myself experienced the other night was the most humbling experience of our lives - we connected with people we never dreamed of connecting with, people we otherwise wouldn’t connect with, yet in a way we’re already connected with through the commonality that Sam mentioned.
That is being local, supporting a local team, being part of that very niche but very tight community. That’s where the fans have come into this in their droves.
Sunderland will forever be a unique club and an even more curious family to be part of. A fan base that appears divided has united in the face of adversity, in collective disgust and dug deep to enact positive change in places where hope seems all but lost.
I don’t think anything on this earth will ever perfectly describe this than having the pleasure of meeting two young lads, cast out from their homes, on the street delving into a conversation that centred around the love of their football team. For all their worries, their woes, it was Sunderland AFC that united us all. For 15 or 20 minutes, we weren’t volunteers at a food bank, they weren’t two homeless men - what we were is what we all are and what we always will be. Four blokes who just love football.
So this is a final thank you, to everyone involved and anyone who is yet to be involved but will. Every one of you has done your bit, given what you can, helped to spread the message around Sunderland and beyond. It’s a thank you to everyone who has supported us as we do this, a thank you to the volunteers who do this week in, week out. It’s a thank you to the food banks, the people that donate their food and clothes. It’s a thank you to people like Andrea who run the kitchen, trustees John and Carole too, who invest so much time, money and effort. It’s a thank you to every person we met who welcomed us with open arms, laughs and smiling faces.
And finally, this is the biggest ‘f*ck you’ I can offer to a system that degrades, dehumanises, perpetuates the issues these people face, who leaves people isolated, homeless and starving, a systematic grinding down of one’s self-esteem and one that ultimately has led to people dying when they didn’t have to. Cold, hungry, lonely and afraid.