A night on the St Vincent de Paul food van with Margaret Sheil

June 17 / 194

Provost Margaret Sheil (third from right) with St Vincent de Paul Victoria CEO Sue Cattermole and soup van volunteers.
Provost Margaret Sheil (third from right) with St Vincent de Paul Victoria CEO Sue Cattermole and soup van volunteers.

As an Ambassador for this year’s St Vincent de Paul’s CEO Sleepout, Provost Margaret Sheil spent an evening with food van volunteers to see first hand the important work they do. MUSSE checked in with her about the experience.

How were you feeling before joining the food van team?

I actually didn’t know what the experience would be like but I was curious and interested to see the work. 

A group of other CEO Sleepout participants arrived at the dispatch point and met the food van co-ordinator. She talked to us about what we’d experience and see, and then set out following the van and other volunteers, most of whom were young student volunteers who served the food, and distributed blankets as it’s now starting to turn cold. 

How does the food van system operate?

Every night the van makes four stops, at Fitzroy, Flinders Street, North Melbourne and the Queen Victoria Market.

We talked to the regular food-van clients and learned a bit about their situations.

Interestingly the clients are not all necessarily homeless, but are experiencing food stress in all situations. Clients in Fitzroy and North Melbourne for instance are more underprivileged, living in public and emergency housing, while there were more young people at Queen Vic living in the hostels that cluster around that area. Clients at the Flinders Street stop were sleeping rough and more ‘stereotypically’ homeless.

Was there any part of the experience that surprised you?

When I went out I thought the vans would sort of go to find people but it works the other way. Clients know when and where to expect the vans, and people come to them.

Some people come every night, and it’s their main social contact. They have a cup of soup and then have a chat with volunteers.

The van co-ordinator also explained that it was relatively quiet that night, as it was early in the month. It gets busier later in the month when funds are starting to run low or run out altogether.

Did you get a sense of the reasons why clients had found themselves homeless or in food crisis?

We were warned by the co-ordinator to expect to see evidence of mental health issues that can be associated with homelessness, but we didn’t see a lot of it.

There was one client who had obviously had problems in the past, but wasn’t able to recover their old life. It makes you realise that once crisis services in hospital or whatever come to an end, for some people they can be left without options.

Family breakdown seems to be a major contributor, with intolerable conditions with partners or parents at home, and an inability to manage relationships.

On the whole clients and volunteers were respectful, grateful, and pleasant, and the opportunity for social interaction was really important.

** You can help St Vincent de Paul keep the soup vans running for the year by supporting Margaret or Paul Duldig who are participating in the Sleepout.




Editorial Enquiries

Got a story?

Staff are encouraged to submit stories. There are some important steps in preparing a media-ready story.  Email musse-editor@unimelb.edu.au