Amidst acrimony, Somerset West soup kitchen to be replaced by transport hub

| Katy Scott
Ricardo Vermeulen, who has recovered from drug addiction, works at the soup kitchen. Photo by Katy Scott.

The Helderberg Street People’s Centre (HSPC), a soup kitchen for the poor in Somerset West, has been given notice by the City to quit its premises by 31 January 2015.

HSPC has been renting the municipal building on Victoria Street month by month, for nearly two years, says the charity’s chairman, Ian Greer.

The centre was opened approximately 14 years ago and is supported and funded by eight churches in Somerset West and Greer’s personal friends in the United Kingdom.

According to Greer, the HSPC feeds about 250 people from the centre each day and distributes food to 750 more in the surrounding communities of Sir Lowry’s Pass, Nomzamo, Lwandle, Zola, the Strand. The centre further distributes clothes and blankets, sponsors education, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and provides emotional support.

Greer has attempted to secure alternative premises. The City does not have an alternative building, he says. Greer alleges that the City has “gone out of its way to make sure that it is unhelpful”.

But ward councillor Stuart Pringle denies this. “It’s unfortunately not a true reflection of the situation. Since 2010 I have arranged a series of meetings between myself and Mr Greer and various stakeholders in the city to find an alternative to this premises because we were getting a lot of complaints… I was personally involved in assisting with four meetings with the owners of properties which might have been alternatives to the current location. None of them were acceptable to the HSPC.”

He says further, “When the lease finally terminated and the matter was up for whether or not to renew I was the one that liased with the City to keep the lease on a monthly basis. I even endeavored to communicate the urgency to the HSPC. I also liased with the City to provide some sort of structured system for people who acquired food via the night shelter.”

Pringle also says that after consulting with the Local Network of Care it was agreed that whatever system was put in place “must be sustainable” and “more than giving a cup of soup.” He says it must be based on the to move people away “from a culture of dependency.”

Greer however says that appeals to landlords of vacant buildings in Somerset West have been met with negative responses. “No one wants two or three hundred poor people milling about next door to their business,” he says.

Greer is now trying to appeal to churches, NGOs and individuals in Somerset West to help find facilities where the HSPC can store and prepare food for distribution, which they can then put in a mobile unit.

Pringle explained that the City plans to “establish a properly functioning transport hub for the city of Somerset West” in this area.

The City’s Public Transport Infrastructure Planning section objected to the HSPC’s application to renew the lease. The council resolved on 24 September that the application be refused, said Councillor Brett Herron, Acting Mayoral Committee Member for Finance.

According to Herron, the lease agreement which had already expired, says that HSPC or the City can both terminate the lease, so long as three months notice are given, he said. The notice was delivered on 10 October.

Greer has asked permission from the churches in Somerset West to use their forecourts once a week to distribute food from a mobile unit. The churches are not able to accommodate the HSPC.

Andy Loughton, a committee member for HSPC and co-ordinator for the Local Network of Care has offered HSPC the use of his bakery on a temporary basis. It is unfortunately not a long-term solution, says Loughton.

“It is a genuine shame that there’s a community here littered with churches, hundreds going to church every Sunday, and no one can come up and help find a way through this,” says Greer.

Loughton believes that the soup needs financial assistance and support, either in its current format or as a mobile unit. “There needs to be an alternative as there is such a dire need for poverty relief work,” he says.

“They’re human beings, most of them haven’t had much of a chance in life. To deny them that when we go to church on Sunday and sing our hymns, I find it very difficult,” says Greer.

“The transport hub was never the original motivation for the removal of the HSPC,” says Loughton. “It fell nicely into the lap of those motivating the non-renewal of the lease.”

The City’s project to create this “transport hub” has not progressed to the detailed design phase as there are outstanding Heritage approvals and land acquisition issues on the Shoprite Precinct, says Herron. The proposal is to have public participation in early 2015.

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