Mia L writes about her own involvement as a volunteer at a local soup kitchen in Hastings town centre, as well as giving a unique, personal perspective on those who use it. She also talks to Mike Cooper, Chairman of the Trustees of Hope Kitchen, team leader – and fellow volunteer.

Homelessness has always been a subject close to my heart from both a social and personal point of view. I was sixteen when, due to the breakdown of my already dysfunctional family, I found myself at the local council department for emergency housing. I was quickly given a place in shared accommodation for vulnerable youths, which provided a base, of sorts, for the years that followed.

However, my newly assigned abode was far from ideal – in many ways. My fellow housemates had a variety of complex issues and the atmosphere was often unpredictable and volatile. Somehow, as time progressed and situations changed, I managed to move on, eventually getting my own flat.

Looking back, what most stood out during this turbulent period of my life was the complete lack of agency I had over my situation. As a disadvantaged young person, I had little say or choice over my personal circumstance. The latter wasn’t just to do with my status as an adult in waiting, it was also related to the distinct lack of bricks-and-mortar foundation beneath my feet – a place to call my own.

I moved to Hastings in 2018, having spent all my previous life in south east London. I knew Hastings, like so many seaside towns, had areas of significant deprivation and high levels of homelessness and was keen to help in any way possible. That’s when I found out about Hope Kitchen, a soup kitchen that runs every Thursday and Saturday evening in Hastings town centre.

My first evening as a volunteer was one of genuine trepidation – I really wasn’t sure what to expect. However, any concerns I had were quickly swept aside as I found a safe and welcoming space where volunteers from all walks of life and faith denominations work together for a common cause, to support those in need.

Engaging with clients is at times heartbreaking, as you bear witness to such injustice and wasted potential, but it’s also a privilege to spend time with these strong and genuine individuals, many of whom I can relate to on a variety of levels.

Homelessness is unique in that it doesn’t discriminate – many of the clients at Hope Kitchen have complex and troubled pasts, but many others have had lives not dissimilar to our own before falling on hardship. This volunteer group provides a wonderful service to those who need it most – individuals so often overlooked by the mainstream.

Services such as Hope Kitchen provide much more than a hot meal to the hungry, they’re a beacon of humanity in an increasingly divided world.

I spoke to Mike Cooper for further insight into Hope Kitchen’s role within the community.

As well as being a general volunteer, Mike is also a team leader and Chairman of Trustees of the registered charity Hope Trust Hastings.

M: How did Hope Kitchen start and how has it evolved over the years?Mike: Hope Kitchen first began in 2005, when a group of local people decided to put their Christian faith into action by starting a soup kitchen in the centre of Hastings. We were aware of the many homeless and marginalized people around the town who needed support. Initially small groups of volunteers went out to offer soup and sandwiches to those on the streets. Around the same time, Wellington Square Baptist Church were looking to use their building – which is located in the centre of Hastings – to reach out to the wider community. They generously offered their basement to us for use as a soup kitchen which we now use every Thursday and Saturday evening on a weekly basis.

M: Can you describe a ‘typical’ evening for the clients at Hope Kitchen?Mike: The doors open at 7.30pm, every Thursday and Saturday evening. Some 20-40 guests are welcomed inside to warm up and receive a hot meal, sandwiches and tea or coffee. We try to use wholesome ingredients and are very aware that some of our visitors might not have eaten a substantial meal for days. There’s no charge for food and guests can come back for more if they’re still hungry. Some volunteers make and serve the food, whilst others are on hand to listen and chat to guests if they feel they’d like the company – everyone’s different in this respect and we always try to be mindful of personal space. When we’ve done questionnaires asking what clients would miss most if we closed, friendship and someone to talk to are always high on the list.

M: What are the roles of volunteers at Hope Kitchen?
Mike: We have various roles for volunteers at Hope Kitchen. Some people are involved in the preparation of food, whilst others help with security so we can provide a safe space for all. However, the main thing we look for in potential volunteers is the ability to listen and not judge – closely followed by a sense of humour. Many volunteers are from local churches, but this isn’t an exclusive requirement – we just ask people to be in sympathy with the Christian ethos. We often reflect on the time spent with our guests: hearing of their struggles and resilience in coping with life is both moving and humbling.

M: Can you elaborate on any additional support Hope Kitchen offers to clients? How do you engage with other services within the local area?Mike: Hope Kitchen can also signpost guests to outside agencies, for additional support if they need it. We really value the input of the Seaview Project, who do some amazing work. We’re also grateful to have volunteers from the St John Ambulance Hastings Homeless Service, who offer nursing advice and treatment at Hope Kitchen on Saturday evenings. We try and offer limited financial aid to those moving into housing, alongside agencies such as Homeworks. We also have links with the Snowflake Night Shelter, Street Pastors, the Food Bank and Transom Trust.

M: How do you think the current political climate has contributed to the high levels of homelessness in Hastings?
Mike: There is no doubt that the austerity policies of our government have been instrumental in creating a huge increase in homeless people in Hastings. As well as street homelessness, many are sofa-surfing and struggling to find secure accommodation. A prosperous country like ours should value people sufficiently to ensure no one needs to sleep on the streets.

M: What are Hope Kitchen’s aims for the future?
Mike: Looking to the future, it would be great if there was no need for a soup kitchen in Hastings, if the vulnerable and the needy were given the support they deserve. In the meantime, our challenge is to keep finding sufficient dedicated volunteers so we can continue to serve those in need.

Please visit the Hope Kitchen website for further information and details on how you can get involved as a volunteer www.hopekitchenhastings.org.uk

ALL PICTURES: Nathan Joseph

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