VOLUNTEERS have defended a soup kitchen accused of causing trouble in the town centre. It comes as the police release statistics to back up their claim that the soup run in Queen's Gardens is a source of unruly behaviour. Borough Commander David Musker said last week he wanted the soup run moved because it attracts people who "spend their money on alcohol rather than food". The kitchen has been in the gardens, opposite Taberner House, for 37 years and is run by volunteers from charity Nightwatch. Amanda Shortland coordinates dozens of people who give up their free time every evening to give out food and drinks, as well as clothes and blankets, to those who use the service. "I don't believe anyone would choose to go to a park late in the evening for food if they weren't in genuine need," she said. "The soup kitchen is not a source of antisocial behaviour. We always see people who are hungry, but only some have been drinking. "I believe that a meal, hot drink and conversation with our volunteers has the opposite effect and people are calmer and more likely to go back to where they stay than be looking to cause trouble in Croydon after we leave." A report leaked last week, produced by a senior council officer but prompted by Chief Superintendent Musker, had recommended using "all available bylaws" to ban the soup kitchen from Queen's Gardens. The plan was eventually shelved in favour of a "measured approach", at least to begin with. The Advertiser asked Croydon Police for evidence of the problems the soup kitchen, which runs between 9.30pm and 10.15pm, had been causing. This week it provided figures connected to a specific operation, launched in July, to tackle antisocial behaviour, begging and street drinkers in the town centre. Since then police have made 135 alcohol seizures, 13 arrests and seven fines in Queen's Gardens, but were unable to provide details of the offences or the times they took place. Like the rest of the town centre, the area falls within a dispersal zone, giving police additional powers to move on groups of people. Police said there have been 30 'dispersals' in Queen's Gardens since July, but again could not directly link them to the soup kitchen. There were 570 alcohol seizures, 99 dispersals and 40 arrests across the town centre as a whole in the same period. About 50 people gathered to use the soup kitchen on Tuesday evening. The volunteers arrived at 9.30pm and by 10.15pm all the customers had moved on. There was no sign of trouble as the crowd stood in the cold and drank soup and tea. The atmosphere was as menacing as it sounds. Volunteer Paul Scivier said: "I've been doing this ten years and in all that time I can probably count on one hand the number of problems there have been." Harry Lindsay, who has volunteered at the soup kitchen for the last 15 years, said: "It's too easy to say this section of the homeless is deserving and another isn't." "If there isn't somewhere for the undeserving to be fed should they go on the streets? There has to be a safety net, even if it also helps the most undeserving cases."
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