This month, I had a chance to catch up with Chip from the Norwich Soup Movement. I sent her a bunch of questions and she answered. Because that’s how interviews work.
To start, what can you tell me about The Norwich Soup Movement? What inspired you to start it and when? Did you encounter any trouble when you were starting out?
NSM is an on-street soup kitchen set up in August 2013, by myself and one of my best and like-minded friends, Amy. The aim was to help those that just don’t have the luxury that most of us do – eating food in our own homes. We are living in a well-off city in the year 2015. There should be no need for soup kitchens, however, the 40+ people that we serve each night tell a different story. We started it with a hope that we’d be able to show a bit of love and humanity to those that have often been forgotten about by society. What we have found, is that a great deal of Norwich are behind us and want the same as we do; we’ve had so much support. We didn’t have any trouble in setting it up – other than the fact we didn’t really know where to begin! We started with a tin can drive and a generous cash donation from a good friend and kind of muddled our way through. We knew there were other organisations and charities out there doing similar things, but all we could see that more help was needed. I think that spurred us on and we just got on with it, with no real plan!
What did you make of last month’s (15th April) March for the Homeless?
The March for the Homeless was a great success, I thought. It started out in Dublin a few years back and I think this year was the first year it went worldwide, with marches all over the UK, the US and Canada. A friend of mine, Elle, approached me at the start of the year as she had heard about it and wanted to make sure we had representation here in Norwich. I thought it was a great idea and obviously something that we should be involved with so I was fully behind it. Elle had never done anything like this before and neither had I. She did an amazing job, talking to press and spreading the word to make sure we had a good crowd on the day. I turned up not really knowing what to expect – it was a weekday lunchtime and with Facebook events, you never know how many people on the ‘accepted’ list will actually turn up. It was a good crowd and a great atmosphere, there were stalls giving information on their causes, musicians playing and loads of people with banners waiting to march through Norwich. The march itself went really well, we certainly got some attention and I hope it got the message across. I heard from a friend working at the council that we were heard from their offices, so it would have been pretty hard to ignore! It felt great to be part of something that was happening at the same time all over the world, and also to know we’re not alone in our fight for an end to homelessness. We had people marching alongside us that we serve at soup runs – it was just really about everybody getting involved and standing up for the same thing, and that can never be a bad thing. A real community vibe and definitely something we’ll be part of again (in an ideal world there wouldn’t have to be a March for the Homeless ever again, but hey, hello there Tory government).
What have some of your favourite or most memorable moments been so far?
Favourite moments! I don’t know if I can choose! Sometimes it’s so, so hard, this is something you take on voluntarily and I don’t think I thought it would ever be so hard or time consuming. So yeah, there are days when you’ve been at work all day and the last thing you want to do is cook for 40 people when you get home, or answer lots of emails or work your way through a big to-do list. This Friday just gone was a great example. Lovely sunny day, all my friends texting me with fun plans of what was happening after work, but I had a soup run to do – really wasn’t in the mood to do loads of cooking in a hot kitchen! But obviously I would never ditch it, so we went out as normal. After all the food had been served, a young girl approached me, she wanted to say goodbye as she was moving away, and also to thank us for the last year. In her words “I’d have died without you guys feeding me, so would others.” That seriously hit home and made me remember the why we do this in the first place. I’ll honestly never forget that. It totally put how I’d been feeling earlier into perspective. We’ve had loads of great feedback and lovely comments along the way but that one just really stood out. We generally have a really good time on soup runs, there’s a lot of laughs and chats with regulars and volunteers – it’s great to see the team grow and people just getting on. I think people maybe see a massive difference between the homeless and the not. This to me, just helps show people we’re not that different at all. When volunteers come for their first time, they get that. Constant best moment.
I understand that recently there was a photography exhibition inspired by NSM. How did that go, and are there any other plans for similar art projects/exhibitions in the works?
A friend of mine, Guy Wilkinson, got in touch last year with an idea to come down and take some shots of the soup run in progress, he’s a great photographer and I thought it would be cool to have some shots to show people what happens on a soup run. I think after that first night, Guy realised there was more to it than one night’s worth of pictures, so he asked to come back and maybe put some pictures together for an exhibition. Guy was really enthusiastic about the project and wanted to capture NSM from all angles, including food storage area and my kitchen while I was prepping for a run. And on the runs themselves, he was flitting about with his camera but I didn’t really see what he was taking pictures of. Guy came on soup runs over three months and then set to work booking a venue, getting the pictures printed and publicising the event. I didn’t really know what to expect; I turned up to opening night at Stew, and was honestly overwhelmed – it’s really hard to put into words. It was like seeing NSM through someone else’s eyes and it felt huge. I think that was probably when I realised how much we’ve achieved and I actually felt really proud for the first time. It was a bizarre experience having people I didn’t know turning up to see what we do. My favourite part was the portraits of volunteers and the homeless Guy had displayed all on the same wall, it was so powerful, again, showing we’re not all that different from one another. Maybe it was one of those ‘you had to be there’ moments! But it just worked so well. We had loads of great feedback and people signing up to volunteer after the exhibition. It was truly beautiful and definitely one of my favourite moments ever. Guy is hoping to make the images into a book in the future and I’m hoping he’ll come back and take some more pictures one day. We don’t have any other similar projects like this in the pipeline, it was probably a bit of a one-off, albeit a bloody wonderful one. The pictures should be up on our Facebook page soon, so if anyone missed the exhibition they’ll be able to have a look.
What can you tell me about the Aviva Community Fund project that both you and The People’s Picnic are involved in?
Well, at this stage, not a whole lot! Haha! The People’s Picnic are another group that do the same thing we do, they’ve been running a while longer than us and were really helpful to us when first started out, giving us advice about what to do and what to expect. We run at the same place on different nights so there’s as much help as possible throughout the week. Karen from the PP messaged me a few months back with an idea to start a hostel, for want of a better word. Did we want to team up? It’s something that Amy and I had discussed too, so the answer was a definite yes. We’ve met up and discussed what we’d like from the project. From the first 5 minutes of chatting, we all knew it was a case of ‘when’ and not if’ the hostel happened. We’re very determined! The subject of funding is something we’d talked about but not made much lots of progress on – we’re still in the very early planning stages after all – but then I was told about the Aviva Community Fund, and the chance of a £25,000 grant. There was no way I wasn’t going for it, planning stages or not. It’s basically down to the public to vote for the causes they think are most worthy of the money. We’re up against over 3,300 other worthwhile community projects, so it’s a scary time! The voting runs for 30 days until the 30th May, so we’re spamming hard! We plan to have an on-site kitchen and canteen, meaning no more serving on the streets and people can eat at tables in the warmth with their friends. We plan to open a café and charity shop, also on-site, where people can start getting back into work, and earn a wage, so they can start learning to support themselves again. We also want to have music and art rooms, where volunteers will teach people new skills or help to bring out confidence as people start to remember the person they were before they became homeless. We would like to offer rooms to people, to give them back their independence, while at the same time offering a wide range of support to help them on their journey back into employment and finding a home outside of the hostel. There wouldn’t be a timescale that people had to leave by, which would eliminate any fears of being moved on. We would link in with other services around Norwich to assist with substance misuse, mental health and criminal issues, ensuring people are supported from all angles. That’s the plan! We just hope we get the grant so we can move quickly.
Finally, how can people get involved with the movement?
The best way to get involved is to send us a message via the FB page, or firstname.lastname@example.org, and let us know what you’d like to do, we can have a chat and get people signed up that way. We do three soup runs a week so there’s plenty of chances to volunteer and cook!
[interview conducted by Karl Howarth, originally published in No More Gigs issue 6, June 2015]