Meals on Wheels

Vienna’s Caritas Brings Hot Lunches and Dinners to those Who Are Hungry and Alone

Caritas serves hot meals and a friendly chat to thousands of the city‘s disenfranchised a day at most of Vienna‘s major sheltered public transportation hubs | Photo: Caritas / Reiner Riedler

While global business moguls and political leaders like to gather in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum to discuss world hunger, others deal with more pressing, micro-economic concerns – like finding a decent meal.

For Vienna’s homeless – estimated variously from 1,000 up to 6,000 people at any one time – a “meals on wheals” project was launched 15 years ago by Caritas, the social service arm of the Catholic Archdiocese. A bowl of hot soup, a piece of bread, a few comforting words, the concept is simple. Two Caritas buses, the Canisibus and Francescobus, serve as mobile soup kitchens, stopping at stations around the capital with a free supper 365 days a year, regardless of the weather.

“Regularity and consistency are the main objectives of our work,” said Elisabeth Drabeck, coordinator of the project.  “We guarantee reliability, a concept that people living on the street encounter very rarely.”

Many living in Vienna might know about social projects like “Die Wiener Gruft,” which provides shelter for homeless people or “Die Wiener Tafel,” that collects foodstuffs and sanitary products for the needy. But for some reason Canisibus and Francescobus don’t seem to ring many bells.  Thus, a visit to the project seemed in order.

Canisibus was started in the fall of 1990, by an ambitious Caritas priest as a low threshold, mobile project within the framework of support of the homeless by the Archdiocese. As there were very few soup kitchens that provided food at night, the idea was to go directly to those people that did not have the means to prepare a meal for themselves and supply them with a warm supper: For many, it was the only hot meal of the day.

This mobility and the importance of an extremely low inhibition threshold characterises the Caritas busses.

“The people receive their soup without saying a name, registering or explaining themselves,” Drabeck says. “That makes things a lot easier, noncommittal, but reliable.”

And it works. Around 80,000 “guests” take up the Caritas offer annually. Sometimes up to three hundred homeless are served in one night.

The home base of the project is the Caritas JUCA (Junge Caritas) house in the 16th District, a welfare institution that gives shelter to needy youngsters between the age of 18 and 30, and at the same time constitutes the “headquarters” for the meals on wheals project. Here, every day the soup is cooked, the busses are prepared and a respective team of four helpers per car starts out on their nightly tour.

Everyday at 16:00, the eight volunteers for that evening come to the JUCA and start preparing the soup. Everybody is busy, cutting bread, peeling potatoes, chopping onions or doing the dishes of the previous day.

As I enter, cabbage soup is simmering in an enormous stockpot in the middle of the room. Before I know it, I am introduced to everyone and find myself peeling potatoes. My bashfulness disappears, and I find I am looking forward to this tour.

Fifty-five voluntary helpers from various backgrounds run the project; students, housewives, early pensioners, working people and some who used to be homeless themselves. Each has a fixed day of the week, which helps build continuing relationships between the teams and the guests.

In the “Thursday” team, all these elements seem to merge. There is Phillip, a student of religion and law, who was looking for a social challenge and has been with the project for four years. Vinka, apparently the “tasting chef” of the team, who wanted something to do in her spare time after her children had grown. Julia, a student of international development, saw the Canisibus in front of her apartment building and asked if she could join. Herbert, a cheerful pensioner a cross pendant around his neck, has been with Canisibus “forever.” Fabian completed his civil service on the Canisibus and decided to stay. “Gagamel” is a former “guest” of the project; off the street now, he still comes to help. And Joe, a vocational school student, is fulfilling 60 hours of community service to compensate for a misdemeanour.

A clash of generations, one might think, but the mood is cheerful and familiar.

Around 6.30 pm the soup is ready. The aromatic nosh is siphoned into two thermal containers and stowed in the busses, along with the rest of the equipment: bread, reusable cutlery and bowls, jars for soup “take-away” and tissues. After we have what we call a “rehearsal dinner,” we are ready to go.

Tonight, I will accompany the Francescobus. While the Canisibus is stopping at Friedensbrücke, Praterstern, Landstrasse and Westbahnhof, we will head for Philadelphiabrücke, Südbahnhof, Karlsplatz and Schottentor.

Our first stop is Philadelphiabrücke. As we turn the corner on the U-Bahn station with a five minutes delay, I immediately spot several trolleys, laden with blankets, plastic bags and bottles. The guests are already waiting.

Phillip and Fabian are jumping out of the van to set up the table with bowls, spoons and bread while the other two are beginning to pour out the steaming soup.

“The soup on Monday was really good, can we have that again?” one asks with a smile. It is not a busy night. The approximately 15 guests are quickly served and take their food to sit in the station concourse. Others stroll around or start chatting. Shaking hands, greeting each other, it seems like a gathering of old friends.

“One gets to know the people,” Phillip says.  “Some come every week, not necessarily for the soup, but just to chat.”

Who are the homeless people that make use of the soup kitchen?  For the 15th anniversary of the project in 2005, a poll was conducted, revealing that 84 percent of the Canisibus guests are male, only 16 percent female. Thirty-five percent are Austrians, compared to 57 percent from new EU countries. Sixty-seven percent are actually homeless, 26% live in an Asylum shelter and the rest simply do have their own apartment kitchen where they can not cook.

Over 50% are daily guests.

The project costs €173,50 a day, covered by donations pf money and supplies. To prepare the 160 litres of soup a day, the project is grateful for every ingredient that is given for free. The bakery Ströck for example donates all the bread, some 25 kilograms a day. Knorr sometimes gives condiments or instant soup products and Nestle chocolates for desert.

There is a variety of soups being offered, depending on the ingredients available and the season: pumpkin-soup, lentil-soup, vegetable-soup, rice-soup, bean-soup, cabbage-soup, potato-soup, millet-soup. Always vegetarian. except for Christmas Eve.

“Christmas should be special for everybody,” Drabeck says. “Thus we serve the guests a soup with meat.  Last year it was an Alt Wiener Rindfleischsuppe.” And another surprise: With the help of a friendly teacher, Drabeck organised almost 400 butterfly-print fabric bags made by school children, filled with gloves, scarves, handkerchiefs, cigarettes, sweets, beverages and underwear. One elderly lady knitted 200 woollen caps, all worthy of the Christkindl himself.

It’s 21.00 on Karlsplatz, the most important stop of the Francescobus tour.

Here, the alcohol, drug level and the propensity for violence are higher and the clientele different. A large group of “Roma-Families” awaits us, mostly from new EU countries that have come to Austria to work, beg or otherwise make their living: Old men, women, children.

One girl that I serve a soup is 14 years of age, at the most. Another young woman pleads with us to give her a blanket. Barely speaking German, she tries to explain that she has a fever and that if she has to sleep outside, she will freeze to death without cover.

We do not have a blanket. All that we can give her is the address of a Caritas medical emergency centre. Another women is crouched on the floor slurping her soup, so strung out, perhaps on drugs that she can hardly stand.

At that point, a well-dressed man in a dark blue cotton coat and an elegant head approaches the bus.

“You are doing an amazing job!” he says, giving Fabian 30 Euros. “What you do is really needed; please forward this to your supervisors as a sign of support.” And as quickly as  he came, with no fanfare, the anonymous donator heads away. I am overwhelmed.

Fabian is beaming: “It is fantastic that passer-bys are sometimes so excited about our work that they decide to donate something immediately. Once, we were given 200 Euros by a man who was simply convinced of the importance of our work.”

Slowly, the guests are leaving and we can wrap up again to drive to the last stop of this day’s tour – Schottenring. It is a calm finale; the temperature has gotten very cold, only five guests are asking for soup. The evening is drawing to a close.

One guest, however, seems to be looking for some more company.  One elderly, bearded man is a permanent customer, somebody who has been living on Vienna’s streets for a long while. Wrapped in several layers of cloth, two heavy, big bags, around his shoulders probably containing his belongings, he slowly eats his soup. He is telling us that two weeks ago somebody stole all his things, which were stored by the corner of a house, while he was having a soup at the Francescobus. No anger or despair resonates in his voice. He rather seems relieved to share his story and receive a few comforting words.

“After that, I walked through the city for the entire night, thinking. ‘Bloody Hell!’ But it is OK now, I have accumulated all my stuff again,” he says with a proud smile.

We chat a little more while we are cleaning up the bowls. Right before we are about to leave, he turns to me: “Are you a good fairy, maybe? Please make the snow go away.”

A little abashed, I smile at him. I cannot do that, but I can promise to come back.

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