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'Homeless people are scared and worried': Soup runs fear HSE inspection will force them to close

Two volunteer soup runs received visits and letters from the HSE’s environmental health section in recent weeks.

TWO SOUP RUNS for the homeless in Dublin city say they might be forced to close after inspections from the HSE.

The co-founders of the two voluntary soup runs – Denise Carroll from the Homeless Street Café and Glenda Harrington from Friends Helping Friends – told The Journal that they both had been visited by the HSE’s environmental health section in recent weeks.

They were subsequently told by letter from that HSE department that an inspection regarding compliance with food safety legislation found the outcome was “unsatisfactory significant” [sic].

Both were told that the non compliance must be rectified before 27 July 2021, on which a follow-up inspection of the soup runs will take place. The letter from the HSE said that failure to comply “may result in formal enforcement action being initiated by the HSE”.

It’s understood that other soup runs who are operated by charities have also been contacted on this issue. 

‘We are not a food business’

However, Carroll and Harrington both said that they could not afford to undertake all the steps outlined by the HSE in the letter and feared they might have to shut down.

They said they were not food businesses (as they were described by the HSE), or charities, but were voluntary soup runs aiming to show kindness to homeless people in the capital.

“Our point is we are not a food business,” Carroll said of the Homeless Street Café. “We are making no profit, we have no managers, no premises. Even though we’re called a ‘street cafe’ we’re just a table on the side of the street and we have volunteers who give us food to share.” Alongside food such as sandwiches and cake, they also distribute tents and sleeping bags. 

She said most if not all of her volunteers are double vaccinated. The food is usually prepared by volunteers in Ratoath and Celbridge, and brought by van in cool boxes and hot boxes by Carroll.

Homeless Street Café was set up five years ago, after Carroll was inspired by seeing a group on Facebook describing how it distributed sandwiches to the homeless.

“I said I will make sandwiches – I was in a position of comfort, where I didn’t realise how many people are in food poverty around us, whether homeless or living in flats or hostels. There is a serious amount of people queuing for this food.”

She and her mother and some other volunteers served 70 people on the first night and she said that these days they regularly serve up to 300 people. Friends Helping Friends serves a similar amount of people on its soup run. Homeless Street Café runs one night a week, while Friends Helping Friends runs two nights a week. 

During the height of the coronavirus restrictions, the Homeless Street Café distributed food by trolley so as not to encourage a crowd to gather, but it is now back to its usual set-up.

Both Harrington and Carroll say they understand the importance of food safety regulation, but are now pleading with the HSE for some leniency based on their specific circumstances – that they are run by volunteers and do not make money.

“This is going to block people from helping,” said Carroll. “I have a group of pensioners who make sandwiches using money from their own pension. This is just relying on people’s good nature – we are no big corporation.”

She said that the fact they serve hundreds of people indicates the need that is there for their soup run. “No one is going to queue on Grafton St for a bowl of stew or a piece of cake if they don’t have a need,” she said. “I understand and welcome any help at all – if the environmental section of the HSE came along and said ‘here are a few tips’, I would welcome that.”

Compliance letter

In its letter to the soup runs the HSE indicated a number of things that need to be carried out to bring them in compliance with food safety legislation.

One of these is monitoring the temperature of food, which both women said they would be able to carry out (they also store the food in appropriate ways depending on whether it is cold or hot, they said).

The HSE also said that “your food business is not registered with the official agency”. Both women dispute that their soup runs are food businesses.

The HSE said that “‘food business’ means any undertaking, whether for profit or not, whether public or private, carrying out any of the activities related to any stage of production, processing and distribution of food”. 

Another HSE concern was that “not all food workers were adequately trained”, and it requires that the soup runs “ensure all food handlers are supervised and trained in food hygiene matters commensurate with their work activities”.

“Basically they are looking for an industrial kitchen and professional catering person,” said Carroll, who co-operates the soup run in a voluntary capacity around her own job as a nurse. 

The HSE also said that at the time of inspection there was no information on the identity of the person who supplied the food, so the soup runs should include this.

A further concern was the absence of handwashing facilities with cold and hot water. If food is pre-packaged, then hand sanitiser will suffice, said the HSE. 

Carroll said that they use gloves and sanitiser, but she wasn’t sure how she would be able to provide handwashing facilities at the side of the street. Harrington hoped to be able to organise sinks for handwashing.

The HSE also asked the soup runs to provide written allergen information on the food.

Both Carroll and Harrington were advised to purchase a ‘Safe Catering Pack’ from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), which they said they were going to do.

“If they could meet us there in the middle somewhere we are more than happy to improve our service any way we can, but what they are proposing will close it,” said Carroll. 

Brian McLoughlin from Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH) said that the soup runs “are doing fantastic work out there and doing it on a voluntary basis”. He said the ICHH believes a better solution would be for the DRHE (Dublin Regional Homeless Executive) and HSE to “work with them and to help them keep doing what they are doing”.

“Our concern is, what alternative is put in place for people to be fed if they have to close? A lot of the gaps can be because the day services that provide food are closed in the evening, and people in emergency accommodation might not be able to get into them.”

‘It would be tragic to take it away’

Both women said they had built relationships with homeless people through their work, and had been told that the soup runs helped change people’s lives.

Carroll said: “On one side there’s the uncomfortable feeling we do have a lot of poverty around us, we have kids and elderly in poverty. On the other hand [this soup run shows we have a] beautiful outpouring of care. I think it would be tragic to take it away.”

O’Carroll said the changes recommended by the HSE would cost money she doesn’t have, and that she is not able to become a charity as it would take up a huge amount of time and money.

“We wanted to keep it so simple – no money, just kindness. Everything they are saying involves money,” she said. 

Harrington said that she was told all the volunteers who supply food to her soup run would have to have their kitchens inspected:

“Obviously they are not going to just let people come in and assess their house. They’re nearly getting penalised for being kind and wanting to help. We are not opposed to regulation, we are happy enough – we know they are there for a reason. They are there to keep people safe, but they are just unrealistic for us. They want me to rent a fully equipped HACCP-certified kitchen to store equipment and cook there.” 

She also raised the issue of funding the rental of appropriate kitchens: “We are completely unfunded. I’m thinking, if I am taking money from donations is that not wrong? It’s not supposed to be for funding a kitchen. I don’t take cash ever, because I’m not a registered charity.”

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Friends Helping Friends has been running for four years. “We’re so upset,” said Harrington. “It’s not possible to do what they’re asking us to do. If the people that were supposed to look after the homeless did their job, we wouldn’t be out there two nights a week. I am devastated for the people that come to my soup run.”

Harrington said some of the homeless people they serve are “genuinely scared, worried – for a lot of people the food is important, the toiletries are important, but for a lot of people it’s the only compassion they get.”

Harrington is determined to continue serving people on the soup run. “I can’t see myself saying to 300 people on the street – ‘right lads, off you pop, no dinner’. I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

The HSE said in a statement that “the primary responsibility of the HSE Environmental Health Service is the protection of public health”.

The HSE Environmental Health Service works under a Service Contract for the Food Safety Authority of Ireland to ensure the relevant food legislation is applied as necessary. All food businesses  must comply with the requirements of food law that is relevant to the business they operate. 

It said that Regulation (EC) No. 852 of 2004 sets out the hygiene rules for all food businesses, such as structure, equipment, food waste, water supply, personal hygiene, heat treatment and training requirements, in addition to provisions applicable to the wrapping and packaging of food.

“Under this Regulation there is also a requirement to develop a food safety management system based on HACCP principles which identifies and controls the hazards that are relevant to the food business in question,” said the HSE.

“Some businesses develop their own in-house food safety management system while others use recognised guides such as the FSAI Safe Catering Pack as a practical and easy to use food safety management system.”

These regulations apply minimum food safety standards to all food businesses, including the voluntary sector, said the HSE. 

Regarding the frequency of inspection of food businesses, it said this is based on the risk to public health, with risk being assessed on a number of criteria including the types of foods being produced, processed and distributed, and the vulnerability of the consumers. Food business operators are required by law to notify the HSE of their intention to carry on a food business.

The Environmental Health Service” endeavours to work with food business operators to encourage an understanding of the legal requirements and to support compliance with the minimum food safety standards regarding structure, operation, safety management systems and staff training and to ensure compliance with food law where non-compliances are found upon inspection”.

Added the HSE:

It is important to note that persons accessing homeless services are among the most vulnerable in our community and may be immunocompromised, therefore the risk of serious illness as a result of food borne infection needs to be kept in mind.

Food services

In September of last year, a UCD report commissioned by the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE) found that additional on-street food services for homeless people “are not required”, and recommended that such services be regulated. 

It found that recent years have seen a “dramatic expansion” in on-street, voluntary food services which are unconnected to DRHE-funded day services. 

The review recommended that DRHE should work with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the HSE to devise a strategy to manage the growth in on-street provision of food to homeless people by volunteers.

At the time, Inner City Helping Homeless spokesperson and Dublin City Councillor Anthony Flynn said it was an issue that needed to be addressed but that demand for on-street food services had risen in recent years.

“Many services who operate voluntary soup kitchens within the city are not only providing for the homeless community but also for the thousands of people who are living in food poverty across the city,” he said.

“The reality is that these on-street soup kitchens are merely a sticking plaster for a major societal problem, food poverty, as there are 700,000 people, including shockingly 200,000 children, living with food poverty in Ireland.”

- Additional reporting Cónal Thomas

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