30 years on the streets

Mike O'Driscoll (L) and friends
Mike O'Driscoll (L) and friends

Mike O’Driscoll from Saint Ignatius parish in north London, reflects on thirty years of soup runs for the homeless that have operated out of the parish. During that period the parishioners have seen the numbers of street homeless wax and wane across the capital. “When we started it was probably at its worst in terms of numbers,” Mike said.  Then in the 1980’s, Britain was in the grip of controversial economic reforms under Margaret Thatcher.  Numbers then steadily decreased, particularly in the first years of Tony Blair’s government but sharply rose again after 2004 with the expansion of the EU and an increase in people seeking work. “Blair was very active about street homelessness and we saw numbers seriously going down, then there was a rapid rise of people from Central and Eastern Europe who were let down with job offers and promises of accommodation; but that has since reduced."

When asked if well-meaning groups giving this sort of assistance to people on the streets could be seen as ‘enabling behaviour’, Mike insisted strongly that, "Soup runs save lives, a lot of people die on the streets, every year in St Martins in the Fields in central London has a memorial service and over a hundred names are read out."  The soup run from St Ignatius has led to another nine soup-runs being set up, with Mike helping parishes from Wimbledon and Harrow to set up groups, including a local youth group – who he was able to advise on safety.  

Reflecting on how there are more locally based soup runs now, many inspired by Stamford Hill, it was interesting to hear who had inspired Mike.  Two important characters where his mum and Fr Manus Keane SJ.  “My mum used to help a few people in Tottenham and Hackney and she taught me not to give to heavy drinkers.  Fr Manus held a ‘Rich man Poor man Meal’ at St Ignatius about 25 years ago”.  Before the meal parishioners were told not to eat dinner and turned up hungry. After a lucky dip half the parishioners were served a beautiful meal whilst everyone else got bread and water. This experience lead to many volunteers.  “Without the help of hundreds of parishioners down the years, dropping off sandwiches and volunteering to drive, this would never have happened” said Mike.

Currently, the Stamford Hill group are struggling to find a driver and are looking for another regular volunteer.  The group travels into central London to Lincoln's Inn Fields where the largest group of homeless people congregate. However driving in central London is getting harder, with increased roadworks and congestion.  Parish priest, Fr David Smolira SJ said, “We are really proud of the work of the Stamford Hill soup run and I encourage new people to get involved, it is a great way to put our faith into action.”