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Soul Soup

“The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” – Hunter S Thompson.

Meet Bev. She’s in her 70’s.

Bev is a professional soup maker. She feeds the homeless, and has fed a whole bunch of hungry mouths in her time. The unwashed souls, dirty feet and lost blankets. Her expedition to the park began with just the serving of soup (the great ‘soup kitchen’ cliché). Almost two decades on, its now a three course healthy meal, with a weekly roast, dessert and always fruit and vegetables. The street people I’ve met say its the best free meal in town. Bev’s mantra for feeding the homeless is this: Never serve these people anything that you wouldn’t be comfortable serving guests in your own home. One day on the menu was slow cooked veal. When asked how it tasted, one of the regulars replied it was ‘ok, not the best they’ve had’. That’s how good the food is; these homeless get fussy as the standards been set.

Bev and her husband John’s community organisation Manna is solely donation based; people donate food, leftover cakes or bread from their businesses. Some local companies provide cash and regular volunteers. It’s a well oiled machine with meals cooked fresh daily, run by volunteers for the homeless. Six fresh, hot meals a week, Sunday to Friday.

Quick stats:

  • Manna Inc gives out over a 100 meals a day
  • Manna has been cooking up meals for over 18 years
  • Perth has over 200 people rough sleeping (living and sleeping on the streets)
  • Western Australia has over 9000 people experiencing homelessness
  • Mental illness and drug & alcohol abuse are disproportionately high amongst homeless
  • The majority of homeless are white males

Ruah 2014, Homelessness Australia, 2013

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Weld Square, Highgate / Perth. The place where Bev and a crew of volunteers serve up the food. 

Bev tells me some of these homeless (whom she affectionately refers to as “streeties“) are dying; of AID’s or diabetes or other health conditions. She’s seen men finish chemotherapy in hospital before going back to their beds in long grass, or toilet blocks or boxes. Women give birth in public toilets. They sleep during the day as it’s a big ol’ dangerous world on the streets at night.

Bev and her husband have dedicated the last seventeen years to making other people’s lives more fortunate through kindness (first) then putting food in their stomachs (second) and this has clearly been their elixir of life. She looks way younger than her years and instantly strikes you (and quite hard too) as one of those seemingly rare souls who can and do turn despair into a wonderful curveball of positivity. These special little people exist to change the world. Simple as that.

“If you had have told me that I would be calling junkies and prostitutes my friends then I would have said you were crazy.” The streeties she’s known for years call her mum. Some of the kids she fed as little babies in their homeless mother’s pram have become teenage girls before her eyes.

Her stories are heart breaking. But this woman tells them with a grace and poise that is so natural and addictive. She is so eloquent and affected by life. Bev goes on to tells me how some homeless plan to commit a crime at the start of the cold season, as they know they’ll get three meals a day and a dry bed in jail. Young girls prostitute themselves for the night just to get a roof over their head and warm bedding.

“One of my ex-streeties is now 16. This young lady ran away from home and began to sell herself because,” (and she quotes), “Mum’s boyfriends used to violate her all the time, so she may as well get paid for it.” Bev continues speaking of this girl, “One day she was held in custody. I received a call from her and helped her out with some clothes, bras and underwear. Now every time we’re together she will tell strangers: “This is my mum and she saved my life.” Bev is unforgivingly proud when she says this.

  Nicaragua's Street Children

“For some, giving small amounts of love or just a touch is like turning on a long burnt out light bulb behind their eyes. I try to hug my streeties as much as I can. Many can’t remember the last time they were touched out of affection. We’re a social species. Everyone needs this human contact.” What to take from meeting Bev is this: Bev’s key is in her detail. From the school programs she runs, to providing uniforms to underprivileged children, to the elderly parties she organises, right down to her providing flowers for poor peoples’ funerals. The need to put care into the detail is perhaps her way of breaking through the heavier aspects clouding the issue of poverty; the crime, drug abuse, its impact on children.  She explains that children can hear so much at night, gunshots and rape, violence and screaming, and then they are expected to go to school and be normal. Bev knows this because this was the environment she was raised.

“Loan sharks will ‘take’ people’s children as payment. Grandma sits in the bathroom, putting the kids to bed in the bathtub, because it is the only room she can properly protect if someone comes for them. These kids are so used to being groomed that of course they don’t trust anyone.”

In our first world so visibly detached from emotion and the intrinsic link to the earth and nature, Bev appears an angel strategically placed to bridge the gap between that deep connection to mother earth and humanity. She has worked on the land, and knows what it takes to make things work when factors (and in a farmers’ case, the weather) get beyond a person’s control. Maybe this is what it is. Maybe it is a trust in the universe that life does not have to be fair, but it can be good.

For a long time after meeting Bev, I couldn’t shake the impact she’d had – the fingerprint placed on me by her all-encompassing personality crushed my soul in such a strong (but good) way; she hit me in a way that no one else in this world ever has. Both selfishly and selflessly, you can’t go back from that.

So now, every Wednesday, I head to the park to help give out cake. Or cordial. I have now been lucky enough to meet these ‘crazies.’ The man with the scar in the shape of a smile across his cheek, the old bearded chap with the dirty pet toy dog, the junkies, the downtrodden. Many would have had love, or lost love, many would have cried and then felt nothing. Most had sold their souls for a fraction of what they were worth. But for the majority, they are polite and smile, and say thank you. They have a laugh with you and look up from, at times, shy or vacant eyes. And I think of the tears that glistened in Bev’s eyes as we said goodbye. This is raw humanity, and this, folks, is exactly how the world gets changed.

So what’s my lesson? Bev has introduced me to a world full of crazy, toothless, cackling, hairy friends (ok so they’re actually not at all like their stereotypes, most have clean clothes and faces) who notice when I can’t make a week and tell me they’ve missed me. Probably as much as the meal they’re given, they enjoy having someone look them in the eye, accept and listen to them. My afternoons in the park never fail to bring me back to earth if I’ve had a bad day and my mind is stuck in the associated “issues” of our own self-important 9-5 existence – we have a lot to learn from this.

If you are keen to help out as a volunteer, hit up Manna: www.mannainc.com.au

Alex Brown is a writer and contributor to FLINT. Based in Perth, Australia. 

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