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Ready, Steady, Cook: Chester’s Soul Kitchen

Ready, Steady, Cook: Chester’s Soul Kitchen

For three years in London, I travelled to and from Russell Square. The tube exit spits you out right next to a Pret, and a regular, heartening display of people at their best; the rough sleepers in that area were inundated with kind gestures – I often watched commuters breaking off yoghurt pots, handing out fruit and sandwiches. Every time I offered to pick up a hot drink I was told something along the lines of, ‘Thank you, but I’ve had a few coffees already today.’ A unique situation which I’m sure arose from the huge swarms of people coming and going, and the sheer convenience. It also helped somewhat appease the soulless, a-b experience we were plagued by.

Then I moved to Chester. There’s something about settling in a city, owning a home, that imbeds you in a community and makes you think longer on what you’re part of; your contribution to it, or lack thereof. Growing up no doubt plays a part too – passively acknowledging problems no longer feels enough. There’s a slow-dawning itch.

Soul Kitchen has been on my feature list for a shamefully long-time. I’ve often passed rough sleepers in the city (albeit less in recent months) with questions – Should I tell someone? What support do they have? Is it wrong to give them money? and the nagging sense that I should be doing something about it. My efforts so far have been meagre  – a few bags of food awkwardly left one morning, occasional loose change, the ongoing mild intention to get involved.

For all its harm, Covid19 has also pushed the essential, wonderful work of local groups and people to the fore. Soul Kitchen is in the spotlight thanks, in part, to the thirteen Chester restaurants currently contributing their cooking to the cause. A local call to arms quickly answered. Inspired, I shook off my lockdown slump and reached out to Helen Anthony, one of SK’s key organisers. More than ever, it’s vital that we do our bit; whether that takes the form of food, time, donations or just spreading the word.

Helen fills me in on SKs humble beginnings, ‘About five years ago a group of friends started meeting at the underpass where the SuperTrees roundabout is now, every Saturday night. They’d set up trestle tables, portable gas stoves, flasks of hot water – for hot drinks and hot meals for anyone who came along. That was for a few years and included a Christmas dinner! I saw them in the underpass and it snowballed from there.’

From treasurer to activities coordinator and all the bits in-between, Helen’s volunteered full-time for the past four years, alongside two other key organisers. ‘We managed to rent Campbell Community Hall in Boughton a few years ago – a much nicer indoors setting with no rats running around like at the roundabout! In addition to providing hot meals, support, clothes, toiletries, there’s also toilets, showers, table tennis and a pool table. The guys come in for two hours and just relax, have something to eat, have a shower if they want. We also offer advice and support.

SK has a core team of around thirty volunteers, a number always in flux, who contribute to a surprising array of activities and initiatives. I was especially impressed to hear about their football team, ‘Soul Survivors’: ‘Pre-lockdown we trained once a week at Goals, the grounds on Sealand Road, and once a month we’d take part in the Liverpool Homeless Football League. It’s great for physical and mental wellbeing and gives the guys a sense of being part of a team, working together and building self-esteem. At the first tournament, they lost every game, and at the last one, they got to the final. Over the 12 months it’s been running, they’ve improved so much. They’re gutted that we can’t continue it at the moment.’

There’s also ‘Soul in a Bowl’ – a weekly cookery session at one of the Chester hostels. A volunteer teaches the recipe, everyone cooks then sits down to enjoy the food together. Helen tells me it’s all about developing cookery skills, a sense of achievement and budgeting.

‘Last summer we started doing a walking group called Offset – once a week, outside of Chester, usually people in recovery who needed to get away from negative influences in the city.’

Unfortunately due to lockdown, all these activities have been put on hold. But they do highlight a key area where people can help – by donating their time and getting involved. Understandably, SK struggle for volunteers during the working week, but are happy to hear from anyone with hours to spare – you can contact SK via Facebook or Twitter – tell them what you’re interested in doing and the time you have to offer.

The current team of volunteers are focusing their efforts on getting food out to those who need it – which at its peak has been 180 meals a night. ‘When the Government brought everybody in – all rough sleepers into temporary accommodation – B&Bs and hotels, food provision was still an issue. Gary Usher (Elite Bistros), who’d been helping us on Saturday’s anyway, said why don’t I put a Tweet out and see if any of the other restaurants who’ve all had to close would help one night a week? He did and it went crazy. Within a day we’d got all seven days a week covered. The numbers have risen considerably: thirteen restaurants, six church groups, a local business and a community group who are all cooking for us.’

I imagine it’s incredibly tricky to cater for allergies and preferences, but Helen’s full of praise for how accommodating everyone is, ‘We have one nut allergy, a couple of vegetarians and one vegan, across the board. The people who cook are amazing, we tell them the issues and they just say no problem.’

ForFutures and CWaC help logistically, relaying the number of meals required for each location. Volunteers then pick up and drop off the food. The scale of this operation and the generosity of the people and groups involved is staggering. I ask Helen if she’s worried about donations dropping off as lockdown lifts, ‘A number of restaurants have already said when this is over, we want to continue supporting you. Three were supporting us pre lockdown. It will definitely become more difficult for them – I’m not sure when they’re likely to open but a lot are doing takeaways etc. I’m also hoping the number of meals needed will start to drop as people move into accommodation.’

Luckily, there are plenty of ways we can support – grabbing a cheese toastie for one. At Meltdown you can add £3 to your bill which owner Laura then puts to good use for SK, cooking food and providing supplies. You can also donate directly to SK.

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Helen’s also raring to get going again with an alternative giving initiative – ‘We’re part of a group called Outside In Chester, a cooperative of voluntary and faith groups, businesses, statutory services, ForFutures, the council and the police – working together to reduce homelessness in Chester. We’re looking at setting up machines in two or three locations where you can swipe your debit card and £3 goes into a pot to help fund support for two main areas – rehabilitation and mental health.’

We can also flag up rough sleepers to groups who can help – ‘You can talk to us or Share – Share have the cafe in Northgate Street. There’s also a hotline for the Council (0300 123 2442) – outreach will check on them, check they’re okay. We might not know about them. The day Gary (Usher) started Tweeting about it saying, let’s do this, I had a guy direct message me saying he’d left hospital three days earlier and had nowhere to stay. We were able to support and he’s been in a hotel ever since. He’s now got a property to move into as soon as it’s refurbished.’

Work’s also begun on a recipe book, which will reflect some of the meals put together by supporting restaurants. SK are keen to hear from anyone who could help fund the project –  ‘There are also three lovely ladies in Chester who bake the most amazing cakes, cookies and biscuits for us every week, in quantities of about a hundred – we want to include them as well. We’d use the profit to keep feeding people.’

A conflict a lot of us struggle with is whether or not to give money to someone sleeping rough on the street, if that’s what they’re asking for. Helen stresses that it’s ultimately your choice – ‘Personally, I would not give money to someone on the street. If they’re hungry or thirsty, then you can buy them a meal or a drink, but the vast majority are able to access food from ourselves or Share. I understand the need to feel like you’re helping in that moment but we’ve had instances where people have been inundated with sandwiches when they just want money. That’s where we’re hoping that the Alternative Giving scheme will help, as 100% of the money donated will go directly to support somebody.

For the small minority who did not want to go into temporary accommodation, ForFutures continue to provide welfare checks and Share are handing out packed lunches. Helen believes that everyone, to some capacity, is covered. The challenge ahead is securing permanent residence for those currently in hotels. ‘We’ll be working with CWaC to get accommodation for people at the end of this – so they’re not just pushed off a cliff edge. That’s over a hundred people, some of whom weren’t necessarily on the street prior to Covid. The overall number has swelled hugely; some were sofa surfing – which had to come to an end, people have faced marital, family and relationship breakdowns and domestic violence.’

‘The opportunity is there now to have the conversation about the future and be able to support them, now that the rules are relaxing slightly. Some people have done incredibly well during lockdown, looking so much better having a bed and three meals a day. Some, unfortunately, haven’t been able to take that step and embrace it to the same extent and there’s still some work needed there.’

The SK team are understandably keen to get their lifeline projects back up-and-running, to continue to support, build awareness and encourage locals to champion where they can. I’d like to raise a socially distanced toast to those who’ve continued to provide much-needed services and who’ve shown up in numerous ways to help. Food for those who need it, and food for thought for those who don’t.

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