Every day of the year, volunteers hit the streets in our Soup Patrol van, serving hot, nutritious meals to some of the most vulnerable people in Perth and Fremantle.
"You don’t need to justify or explain your suffering or even tell us your name for our help,” says Danielle Stevens, who runs the Soup Patrol. "This is the immediate, practical help people need to survive without stigma or embarrassment.”
Every night of the year, no matter the weather, a team of Soup Patrol volunteers provide nutritious meals for people who are homeless or struggling to get by in Perth and Fremantle.
"We don’t ask questions or make people fill in forms. We will never turn away anyone who needs us."
Our Soup Patrol van visits designated spots where people are already waiting for us each night. It's a safe, welcoming atmosphere as volunteers bring out soup, bread, and fruit. Sometimes, there’s extra food, toiletries, clothing and blankets – free to whoever needs them, she says.
Being without a home is more than living on the streets. It’s sleeping in cars, abandoned buildings, and crisis shelters. It’s drifting from couch to couch as the hospitality of another friend wears out. Last Census night, almost one in 200 people in our country were homeless – 55.9% were men and 44.1% were women.
Danielle has met families sleeping in cars after a rent hike left them without a choice, young people couch surfing to escape homes filled with violence, and older people sleeping rough after a crisis unravelled their lives.
"I’ve gotten to know many Soup Patrol regulars and learnt how anyone’s life can quickly change. People have told me how their lives fell apart after the death of a loved one, a job loss, a relationship breakdown, abuse, or deteriorating mental health. Sometimes, it’s drugs and alcohol. Often, it’s many overlapping reasons.
"I've seen people's resilience and courage, but I have also seen their struggle and how stigma can prevent them from seeking support. It must be exhausting, isolating and frightening."
It's here we start, meeting a fundamental need, Danielle says. "As the volunteers serve soup, they chat if people want to or smile, look into their eyes and acknowledge them. It’s letting people know they matter and someone cares.
"In a way, it’s like a family. People know we will show up for them 365 days a year. The Soup Patrol has been around for almost 50 years. We’ve earned the trust of the community we help."
Richard, who has volunteered with the Soup Patrol for over 18 months, says the support goes beyond a hot meal. "We meet people who need to be heard and listened to: people who want to be treated with respect and dignity. That’s more important than the soup in many ways."
"Something connects when you look someone in the eyes and acknowledge them as a person. When they know you care and there's no judgement. You can almost see the demeanour of some people lift because they feel seen and appreciated."
Richard says people who come to the Soup Patrol are aged from their late teens to their 70s or 80s. Many have shared their stories with him. "One man told me how, as a child, he was savagely beaten by his father. Another told me how his life fell apart after the sudden death of his wife. People have shared stories of all kinds of heartaches that led them to alcoholism and drug addictions."
Lately, he has met a lot more people simply falling into homelessness. "We’re starting to see mothers and children living in cars. It’s rare to see children, but there has been more this year.
"I think it’s the cost of living. And it’s difficult to get rental properties in Perth, and what’s available is expensive. We’re hearing a lot of stories of people couch surfing and sleeping in their cars."
Richard, who volunteers with his wife Denise, says people rely on the Soup Patrol. "Everyone says to us, 'We always know Red Cross will be here.'"
Volunteering with the Soup Patrol can sometimes be emotionally exhausting, but it can also be uplifting, he says. "We love the relationships we develop over time. We love the humanity of it."
Robyn, who has volunteered on the patrol for 20 years, says there has never been a night when she hasn't been thanked. "One man who always thanks me said once, 'It’s wonderful you’re bringing soup. I’ve got no teeth. This is really all I can eat.' When you live on the street, a toothbrush and toothpaste - let alone running water – are luxuries that aren't easy to come by."
People often just want to be acknowledged and treated with dignity, she says. "It makes me smile to think about the older man who sings to me or the younger man who lights up when I repeat his name.
"After all these years, I can't give you a solution to the bigger issues. But I can do something to help here and now. I can ensure people have a nutritious meal; sometimes, the only thing they will have to eat that day. And I can offer it with kindness, a smile and the respect everyone deserves.
"People depend on Soup Patrol. I would be devastated if this service ever stopped because I know how many would go hungry."
Danielle says she, too, has heard countless words of gratitude from the people they support.
"And I’ve seen the immediate relief on people's faces as they wrap their hands around a cup of a warm, nourishing soup. It's that moment they know you've turned up for them and see them for who they are beyond this crisis.
"Everyone matters and deserves to be treated with dignity and fairness, not judged by their circumstances or past."
Every day, Australian Red Cross teams all over the country support communities in times of disaster, hardship, isolation and crisis. The generosity of people like you makes the work we do possible.