“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara
Among the various church and community groups helping support disadvantaged groups in Melbourne, the soup vans of the St Vincent de Paul Society have for over 40 years been feeding people who are down on their luck. Livia Carusi and Danusia Kaska explain why.
From its humble beginnings in France in 1833, the St Vincent de Paul Society was established in Melbourne Australia in 1854. Like so many other faith-based organisations inspired by the Gospel, the Society was established in response to the growing social and economic divide of its day.
Fast forward to 1975. Responding to a growing food insecurity issue in the inner city of Melbourne, the St Vincent de Paul Society established the first of a number of soup van operations.
Since its inception, a great deal of wisdom has been gained on the issue of food insecurity. These lessons relate to the practical side of service delivery, such as food quality, handling, compliance, cultural requirements. In addition, first-hand knowledge has been gained of the impact of the social component that ‘sharing a meal’ brings to the life of an individual, as well as to a collective community. For many, the social sharing is often more important than the meal offered.
Our ‘Vannies’ often share with us that people yearn for social connection and interaction with others with whom they have built close relationships and shared their life stories. This is a social time for them, a place where they feel safe in a trusting environment, where they don’t have to hide or ‘just survive’. It is a time when they are treated with dignity and respect, and honoured by the ‘Vannies’.
The food is simple – home-made soup, sandwiches, and hot and cold drinks – prepared by our very dedicated volunteers.
Whom are we serving? Over time, many of us have witnessed the changing face of people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. This change has been and continues to be the case for our program. Once confined to responding primarily to single older men in the inner city of Melbourne, today we offer a response to families, single women, older people, as well as to those who are working but who, because of insufficient income, are unable to afford food.
While there is a need, our commitment to serve will remain in this space. While there remains one person living in poverty, or people unable to feed themselves or their families, or who are disconnected and excluded from the community, the St Vincent de Paul Society will continue to stand alongside the vulnerable and marginalised. We will ask especially, “Why are they poor”, and advocate strongly for a just and compassionate society for all.
Our Vannies Story
- Operating for 40 years, starting in 1975.
- There are over 1300 dedicated volunteers who give generously of their time seven days a week, 365 days of the year, rain hail or shine!
- There are over 250,000 meals served every year to people experiencing hardship.
- Everyone is welcome, regardless of gender, age, or where they call home.
This is an edited article which has been previously published in in March 2016 in the Council to Homeless Persons’ Parity magazine. The St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria acknowledges the contributions made to this edition of Parity, most notably the shared experiences and courage of two of our program clients, as well as a long-standing ‘Vannies’ volunteer. The wisdom of the ‘lived experience’ is, after all, the passion which ignites our hearts and our conscience towards a just and compassionate society, ensuring action for fundamental human rights, including the right to shelter, employment, and food. (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Article 25.)
At Melbourne’s St Vincent de Paul Society, Livia Carusi is General Manager Membership & Development; Danusia Kaska is Operations Manager for the Soup Van Program and a Board member of Social Policy Connections.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org | 0429 554 288.