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Social Justice

Inside the homeless soup kitchen asking Nicola Sturgeon for a helping hand

Homeless Project Scotland’s plea for a base has reached Scotland’s first minister. The Big Issue visited the soup kitchen to find volunteers pushed to the limit as the cost of living crisis sees more people going hungry.

Take one step into Homeless Project Scotland’s (HPS) small unit in the centre of Glasgow and it’s instantly apparent why the grassroots group is pleading with Nicola Sturgeon to help it find its own home.

Tucked under Hielanman’s Umbrella underneath Glasgow Central railway station and next to the Grant Arms pub, the only sign the group is there at all is an invitation to tap your card to donate on the door.

Walk inside on one of the three nights a week when HPS’ soup kitchen and food bank service is running and you’ll be greeted with a hive of activity and a distinct lack of space.

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Homeless Project Scotland
A tower of Pot Noodles is among the assorted supplies packed into the small unit. Image: The Big Issue/Liam Geraghty

An army of volunteers squeeze past each other and the bulging shelves of donated produce and essentials as trains can be heard rumbling overhead. There are towers of Pot Noodles, piles of rice and pasta, hundreds of tins of chopped tomatoes and bikes squeezed into the space between because there is nowhere else for them to go.

At the back of the unit there are boxes and rails of clothes, some piled up to the ceiling. They can’t be handed out to people who need them at the moment, The Big Issue is told – there is simply no space to sort through the donations.

Homeless Project Scotland
Colin McInnes is the driving force behind Homeless Project Scotland. Image: Homeless Project Scotland

According to Colin McInnes, who started the group in 2020, this is what reaching capacity looks like.

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“You can see why we need a building?” he says. “If I could have one wish, it would be to get a building for the people.

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“We want to create a welfare centre that means 24 hours a day people can come into that building, get some food, some welfare, sit and watch the telly, play cards. They don’t need to worry about putting the heating on because we’ll be turning ours on for them.”

HPS is not alone on the frontlines across the country in trying to meet increasing need.

Last month 550 food banks in the Independent Food Aid Network warned they could reach “breaking point”, arguing: “It is not for volunteers to plug the gaps left by a broken social security system and poorly paid jobs”. The Trussell Trust warned of a “national emergency” over surging demand following rising energy bills and food costs.

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That greater demand is behind the long-running plea for a building. HPS has been speaking to Glasgow City Council about the possibility but McInnes seems frosty about the current situation.

The local authority told The Big Issue it is “continuing to evaluate a number of sites” for a potential home for HPS.

In the last few weeks, the call has escalated further. Scottish Labour’s Glasgow MSP Pam Duncan-Glancy asked Sturgeon to intervene at First Minister’s Questions.

Sturgeon responded: “I am happy to engage with the homeless project to see whether there is more that we, as a government, can do to help it find a building. The work that it does is extremely important. We all wish that it was not necessary, but I pay tribute to the project for its work.”

Homeless Project Scotland
An army of volunteers hard at work to prepare meals in the tiny unit. Image: The Big Issue/Liam Geraghty

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Scottish Government officials have been in contact with both Homeless Project Scotland about their needs and Glasgow City Health and Social Care Partnership which is exploring a number of sites within its portfolio. We hope a suitable property can be identified soon that matches the needs required.”

But for the 30 or so volunteers who are moving tables across the street to set up the soup kitchen and cooking meals on tiny portable gas stoves, the wait goes on.

Homeless Project Scotland soup kitchen shows cost of living crisis
Homeless Project Scotland is now looking for a building to ensure hungry children can access food indoors rather than on the street. Image: Homeless Project Scotland

They also have to stare across the street at the long-vacant Tower Records shop – a situation McInnes described as “annoying” after telling The Big Issue his efforts to secure the building were rebuffed.

But most annoying is the fact that HPS can’t help more people at a time when the cost of living crisis is likely to drive more people to the brink.

Not just entrenched rough sleepers – McInnes disputes the figures from Simon Community Scotland that say just three people are regularly sleeping rough in Glasgow – but families and children too.

The group recently released photos of children using their soup kitchen and pinned to the wall in the packed unit is a letter reading: “All the staff lovely help my Mummy. Your all my friends Lucy + Mummy”.

Homeless Project Scotland thank you note
This thank you note from a young girl is pinned on the wall of the unit. Image: The Big Issue/Liam Geraghty

Volunteer Julia Mitchell, who works for a counselling service, tells The Big Issue over a pot of steaming macaroni cheese: “It’s very sad when you see people bring children to the soup kitchen. There is a lot of need out there and with the cost of living and the price of energy going up as well that is having a massive impact.

“We believe we’re seeing different people all the time. But people can come and take what they want. There’s no judgement. That’s important.”

HPS also helps people on the other end of the age spectrum. Sat on a chair just outside the door is Agnes (name changed). The 71-year-old travels into the centre from Pollokshaws on the city’s Southside and never misses any of the three times a week HPS are out on the street.

Homeless Project Scotland Bruce Robertson
Bruce Robertson is leading the group’s efforts to improve their organisation to make the most of their limited space. Image: The Big Issue/Liam Geraghty

“It gets me out of the house,” she tells The Big Issue. “The house can be depressing, especially when you’re by yourself. I’ve got no one to talk to except the four walls and they can’t answer you back.  

“They look after me here because they know me. That’s why I call them my family. If they weren’t here I’d be lost and I’d be angry and I’d be upset.”

For HPS to help more people like Agnes, there is only one solution: they need a new building.

For now they must make use of what they have, that’s where Bruce Robertson comes in. The retired engineer has been volunteering for HPS for a month and his most pressing task is organisation.

“I’m working the unit and doing stock movement and trying to put a bit of process in place,” he says as he waits to feed the growing queue of people.

“You’ve got to look for efficiency when you’re limited in spaces you can see. That’s why it’s so important that they get a new building. They need that to get people off the street to feed them.”

If groups like HPS are now an essential part of helping people to survive, that brings the scale of the cost of living crisis home.

Another volunteer who gives her name as Mags tells The Big Issue she has been homeless and battled addiction in the past. 

Now she says HPS needs to be able to react to the reality on the streets. She says: “It’s a necessity, a life-saver. We could be doing so much more.”

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