A Lifeline for the Urban Poor

It is said that the larger and more developed a city is, the greater the chances of seeing people living out on the streets. And so, when a city is big enough, you will find needy individuals and sometimes families, in need of shelter, food and drink.

One common way in which help comes to these unfortunates is in the form of soup kitchens, not just as a part of food-sharing programmes, but also in lending emotional support, finding job placements and providing basic medical care. Penang has quite a few of these.

“The people on the streets taking the food are not only the homeless, but also the urban poor,” says Patsy Gooi of Kechara Soup Kitchen Penang. There are people who, despite having a job and a home, still struggle to find food. There are also those who are chained in addiction to drugs, alcohol, and gambling.

More often than not, public perception generalises most unfortunates as dysfunctional people undeserving of sympathy. But these are “people who have been rejected by their families and societies. Instead of shunning them, we have a responsibility as a society and as human beings to support them in any way we can,” says Ed de Visser from Kawan Penang.

Soup kitchens such as Kechara, Kawan, The Lighthouse and St. George’s Church’s “Empowering the Disadvantaged” programme which operates in the heart of George Town hold one common principle: that we are all human, before anything else.

The Lighthouse sees food as a way to reach out and connect with the unfortunates.

Michael and Helen Wevers.

Ed de Visser from Kawan Penang.

Support includes a wide range of assistance, particularly on a personal level. Michael Wevers from St. George’s Church employs a participative approach by extending a helping hand to the needy: he would walk the streets to meet and talk to the unfortunates, inviting them to eat at the soup kitchen. He and his wife, Helen, provide counselling for people with addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Bele Joseph from The Lighthouse sees food as a way to reach out and connect with the unfortunates. “We can view food as a kind of attraction for the needy. The relationship is built from there.” The Lighthouse has been  operating for the past 15 years under the principle of “giving chances of the chances”, believing that even in the darkest depths, there is still a will to change for the better.

Trust is built through knowing. People on the streets are vulnerable to exploitation, threats and harassment; many have had bad experiences while living and lounging on the streets, and have faced robbery and extortion. This has made them very cautious of strangers, especially during the night.

To reach out to the unfortunates, the soup kitchens start by building up trust, constantly keeping in touch them. Over time, they become family; most of the poor become regulars in the soup kitchens, alternating between centres according to the time and day of their operations.

The Myth of the Lazy Poor

The most prevalent question raised about soup kitchens is about the long-term effects on the needy: “With so many soup kitchens in existence now, these people will not have to work anymore as they know that they will definitely receive food on a daily basis”. This of course suggests that soup kitchens encourage the unfortunates to be lazy.

But the issue is of course much more complex than that. For a start, many of those who are in need of soup kitchens are senior citizens. They may be without family or perhaps their family has abandoned them, and they simply do not have the energy to work anymore. Many have a house or a room, but do not have the means to procure food.

Secondly, many have very low self-esteem due to past traumas. Job placements may not be able to solve their problem. As de Visser notes, Kawan also receives various job placements, “but most of them only last a few days or weeks. One was so scared when her employer got mad about something, she decided to run away and get back on the street.”

Just as with any other person, the unfortunates have their own needs, hopes and stories. All empowerment projects need to address these at the personal level and include these in their initiatives.

Patsy Gooi.

A volunteer serving food at St George's Church's "Empowering the Disadvantaged" programme.

“These people have long been left out and even condemned. They don’t know what the warmth of love is anymore,” says Wevers. “They need to know that they are still appreciated and that there are people out there who are concerned about their well-being. The simple act of talking to them and giving them encouragement is a profound way of acknowledging them.”

The same approach is taken by Kechara and The Lighthouse: people living on the streets and those who come in on a regular basis are treated as family, and are encouraged to exchange news and share their stories. Staff at The Lighthouse consist of former unfortunates, many of whom have managed to get back on their feet.

More than just filling the bellies of the poor and homeless, soup kitchens are beacons of hope for those who have none.

Ways You Can Help

Kechara medical team doing a routine check-up.

These soup kitchens welcome any form of help and encourage the public to take part in their programmes, be it on a one-off basis or as regulars. Their purpose is to educate the public on the living conditions of the unfortunates and the actual issues surrounding the homeless and the destitute. Some need immediate assistance in the form of volunteers and money. Visit their websites or contact the person-in-charge for more information.

Kechara Soup Kitchen operates every Monday (mobile: 9pm-12am), and Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday (at premise: 5pm-8pm). They also provide basic medical care. Other initiatives include Kechara Food Bank and Tesco Surplus Project, where they distribute food and other necessities to low-income families all over Penang. They are currently short on committed volunteers who can help with the collection and distribution of food from Tesco during working hours (9am-5pm).

Patsy Gooi | Tel: +6012 402 2992 | Website: www.kechara.com/ksk | FB: @KSKPage

Kawan Penang.

Kawan Penang serves breakfast and lunch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (10am-3pm). They also provide a safe resting/sleeping area, and bathing and laundry facilities, as well as counselling, Kawan Shop and referrals to other service centres. They are currently in need of financial assistance since relocating to new premises.

Ed de Visser | Tel: +6011 1643 1422 | FB: @KawanPenang

The Lighthouse operates Monday to Friday (9am-5pm). They provide counselling and outreach services. Other initiatives include The Lighthouse Bakery, The Lighthouse Laundry, Lightworks Skill Development and Educational Programme, and Bright Sparks. They have started a refugee school to provide education to Rohingya refugees in Penang.

Bele Joseph | Tel: +6019 480 0319 | FB: The Lighthouse

St. George’s Church’s “Empowering the Disadvantaged” operates on a bi-monthly basis starting every second Saturday of the month (8am-12pm). They also provide counselling for drug and alcohol addicts, as well as health and education.

Michael Wevers | Tel: +6012 307 6747 | Website: www.stgeorgeschurchpenang.com

NOTE: All meals are served with religiocultural norms and values in mind. While these soup kitchens are founded and operated by religious groups, their mission is solely to give help and support the unfortunates, without distinguishing colour or creed.

Razan Rose' writes to put food on his table. He can be reached at razanrose92@gmail.com

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