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Soup and solidarity

Kate Mani  |  06 February 2018

soup vanFor Vinnies volunteers, their time on the soup van is as much about the conversation and company as it is about the food that's shared.

It's already dark and the noise of evening traffic fills the street, yet the speaker's soft voice is clear as he looks me straight in the eye.

'I have to tell you that we're not all scum, because I don't think I'm scum.'

This man has just explained how a motorbike accident which hospitalised him for months, and threats from squatters who took over his home, saw his stable life spiral downwards. The situation left him to resort to crisis housing accommodation. This softly spoken man is one of the many Victorians who have fallen on hard times, are served a meal and are treated with dignity and respect by the volunteers who run St Vincent de Paul's nightly soup vans.

On this crisp Monday night, the speaker is a familiar face to twenty-one-year-olds Shaun Bourke and Michael Catania who are leading the Fitzroy Van. This inner-city service was set up in 1975 by a small group who wanted to provide food and friendship to those experiencing homelessness. Vinnies now run seven soup vans across Victoria in Fitzroy, Collingwood, Footscray, Berwick, Rosebud, Endeavour Hills and Moe. They also provide services to boarding houses in the CBD.

Bourke and Catania became involved with soup van through their high school and have continued volunteering while studying at university. Since then, Bourke has become president of the Fitzroy Soup Van and Catania is a Monday night leader.

A chance to build friendships

From the early days of his volunteering, Catania has relished the chance to build friendships with recipients of the service who are socially isolated and in need of companionship.

'I enjoy talking to people. I like talking to the guys at the Queen Vic Market stop about footy, I like catching up with John* at Fed Square and talking about life', he says. 'I have a connection and that's what draws me back.'

As president, Bourke oversees the van's leadership and ensures the service runs smoothly and adheres to Vinnies' policies. Taking on the role of president encapsulates his understanding of social justice.

'Social justice isn't meant to be easy in my view. I think it should be taking your time, your energy and it should be something you're always thinking about. It's about looking for new ways to challenge yourself.'

For Bourke, seeing the immediate impact of handing out food, serving drinks and providing toiletries and blankets to people sleeping rough makes the challenge worthwhile.

'Knowing you're making a small and tangible difference can be rare in social justice. Sometimes you can fundraise and not know where the money goes', he says.

'On the soup van you can see the difference you make, bringing bits of enjoyment to people or nourishing them with food.'

Catania is inspired by the van's accessibility to people of any nationality, culture and religion, which sums up his idea of service to others.

Serving those in need

'There are no strings attached to what we do, it's as simple as it can get', he says. 'You're someone in need, you need to talk to someone, you can come to the soup van, you can grab a sandwich, you can have a chat.'

In 2016, the Fitzroy Van provided more than 146,000 meals to people living rough in the CBD, Fitzroy, East Melbourne and South Melbourne, delivering food to over 400 people every night.

The demographic the Fitzroy Van serves is varied, a poignant reminder there is no one image of homelessness. On the night I help out, I serve coffee and soup to people who are sleeping rough and can't prepare meals and to others living in community housing who struggle to afford food. Some recipients are families living out of cars, others have become isolated through mental health issues or substance abuse.

In the crowd which gathers around the van at each of its five stops there are people who are talkative, laughing and joking with volunteers. Others are more subdued, accepting their pies and sandwiches quietly, but 'what you do is fantastic' is something I hear directed towards the volunteers over and over.

The evening's food is carefully prepared from midday onwards at Vinnies' base in North Melbourne. In the afternoon a conveyer belt begins as volunteers of all ages fill sandwiches and wrap rolls, using food from suppliers and donors.

The Monday night food preparation and distribution relies predominantly on young volunteers and Catania believes this factor is crucial to maintaining the service.

'I think there's a perception of people who volunteer as being an older demographic. To a certain extent it's true but there's something about what we do on a Monday night, there are young people and it's something different, it's fresh', he says.

'It's great that there are people who have volunteered for 30 years, that commitment is fantastic. But we need young people to take up the baton.'

Bourke and Catania's dedication to this cause isn't limited to a Monday night. Off the van they work hard to spread the message about homelessness and encourage others to volunteer, speaking at youth community events and workshops.

Breaking down stereotypes

During school visits, Bourke tries to break down stereotypes surrounding homelessness and encourage young people to reflect on issues outside their own immediate life.

'My hope is to make them think differently about homelessness. It can affect all kinds of people, we're all only one step away from it', he says.

'Not everyone has the value set to go out and do something about the issue but anyone can think about it and break down that stereotype.

'The more we're able to do that, the more homelessness becomes less of an "us and them" and these people become part of a community with the rest of society.'

Both leaders clearly gain personal satisfaction from volunteering, and that's another reason Catania encourages young people to get involved in social justice.

'Find a cause that suits you and that you're interested in, something you enjoy and are passionate about', he says. 'Homelessness is something that interests me and I've now got this desire to help people who are experiencing it.

'I enjoy going to the soup van, it's one of my most enjoyable times of the week.'

*name has been changed.


Topic tags: socialjustice-australia, volunteeringandtakingaction, healthycommunitylife

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