Patrons want to feel safe and secure as much as anyone. For many patrons, the soup kitchen offers a respite from the chaotic and hectic nature of their everyday lives. They want a place that feels safe and non-threatening. Volunteers and staff also deserve to be working in a safe space.
Security Systems and Services
One of your first considerations regarding security will be whether your building has a security alarm system. If it does not and your budget permits, you should investigate subscribing to a building security and alarm service. These services provide detectors for all of your designated doors, for temperature monitoring of your coolers and freezers and can also provide motion detectors in any designated area. You need to make sure that the facility meets all fire codes and that required fire and smoke detector alarms and fire suppression sprinklers are in good working condition.
The next step up in security is contracting with professional security personnel or uniformed police. Many times local police are available on an off-duty basis for outside jobs. Enlisting either a security service or police can be a difficult decision as it can be costly and, if not executed properly, can change the feel of your dining room. You would not want to go to this level of security unless you have experienced serious negative incidents in the dining room or outside the building.
If you determine there is a need for on-site security you will want to make sure that the personnel you retain are highly trained and have a track record of working with people of diverse ethnic backgrounds in a sensitive, empathetic manner. You also want security personnel who have experience dealing with those who are mentally ill and/or those suffering from substance-abuse problems.
It should be noted that the mere presence of security personnel in uniform will generally reduce the number of negative incidents. Trained personnel have the ability to maintain a low profile and only surface in the instance of a potentially hostile situation. If done well, security personnel will in time blend in and not negatively impact the hospitable tone of your meal service.
You need to provide for the safety of your staff and volunteer vehicles. Volunteers should be told to make sure their cars are locked and devoid of valuables. They should avoid parking at the soup kitchen and then be seen stowing valuables in the trunk of their vehicles. If you are serving an evening meal, it is important to have a well-lit parking lot. Also, consideration should be given to providing security staff to walk the parking lot during the meal. You should have a reimbursement policy to cover vandalized or damaged cars.
When volunteers arrive at the soup kitchen, it is good practice to provide a secure area to store personal items and clothing (see also Chapter 11 Volunteer Management).
During the orientation and briefing session, volunteers should be made aware of the risks of becoming overly friendly with patrons i.e., offering to provide rides, loaning money, or taking patrons out to dinner and/or entertainment events.
As stated in the volunteer management chapter, you should decide on a minimum age for your volunteers. The Trenton Area Soup Kitchen has a policy of no volunteers younger than thirteen.
One particular problem can arise with teenage volunteers who are dropped off by their parents and then need to be picked up at the end of the meal. If the parent is running late, you must provide an adult to stay with the young person until their ride arrives.
Building Security and Staff Safety
There are many common sense procedures to minimize risk at a soup kitchen. It is also true that, despite your best efforts, problems will arise. For instance, from time-to-time things may be stolen. While it is prudent to be insured for theft and liability, at some level stolen items should be considered a cost of doing business.
One kind of theft that is potentially serious is that of food provided by the USDA. It is important to have good inventory control of such food items. If there is theft or misappropriation suspected and a complaint is lodged, you will be dealing with a government field food investigator. To minimize problems, some soup kitchens utilize security cameras to monitor their delivery doors.
Some simple steps to follow include closing and locking your office behind you and having a hierarchy of keys for staff, for example, separate inside vs. outside door locks, desk locks, storage area locks and cooler and freezer locks.
You should institute a check-off list for staff to follow when opening and closing the facility. Check list items should include locking doors, turning off lights, setting alarms, and checking freezers and coolers. It is important to check the bathrooms before you leave to make sure that no one has fallen asleep in the stalls. You don’t want to get a phone call in the middle of the night from your security service telling you the motion detector has gone off. It is best to have more than one person on the premises when closing. It fact, you should never have one person alone at the facility at any time.
Control of foot traffic in the soup kitchen is an important security concern. You should have no unlocked doors that provide access to other parts of the building.
It is the floor manager’s responsibility to monitor the dining room for any disturbance and respond as soon as noticed. Potential problems need to be nipped in the bud. If the floor manager does not address a situation until too late, it will be necessary for him/her to alert security personnel for assistance. When altercations occur you should enter the pertinent information into an Incident Log Book. This is particularly useful if you find it necessary to document why you separated a patron from the general soup kitchen population for a specific period of time due to unacceptable behavior.
There are several further precautions to provide a safe and healthy environment for your staff. As your soup kitchen grows you should consider providing testing for staff for TB, HIV, and Hepatitis. While not mandatory, it is desirable to have someone on staff who has received first aid and/or CPR and Heimlich maneuver training. When dealing with cuts or bleeding it is important to wear sanitary gloves. For serious medical emergencies you should always call 911. As stated in the food safety chapter, all staff should be in the habit of frequent hand-washing. Providing wall-mounted hand sanitizer stations for patrons, volunteers and staff is also desirable.
Safety and Security Tips
TIP # 1 – Another option for minimizing car theft or vandalism is to have closed circuit cameras positioned outside the building.
TIP # 2 – If you utilize motion detectors as part of your security system, be aware that the detectors can be set off by heating and air conditioning fans blowing anything that might be hanging from the ceiling such as banners or signs. This will give false alarms and can be very annoying.
TIP # 3 – Wet tile floors can be very slippery and hazardous. Make sure you position triangular hazard signs during and after mopping the floors.
TIP # 4 – Volunteer groups often like to do clean-up projects such as patrolling the outside area around a soup kitchen. This should be discouraged due to the hazards of broken glass and the possibility of getting stuck by discarded syringes used by drug addicts. The better approach is to have such duties performed by trained staff wearing heavy gloves.
TIP # 5 – You should consider asking your local unit of government to provide free or partially subsidized police coverage during your meals.
Tales of TASK – Off-Duty Police Officers
TASK worked hard to create a welcoming and hospitable environment over the years. However, as the demand for its services increased dramatically in the late 1990s and the dining room became more and more crowded, periodic incidents occurred (dining room altercations and car break-ins). Clearly, this was a situation that had to be addressed to ensure a safe environment for patrons, volunteers and staff. However, the board was concerned that hiring uniformed security personnel would change the homelike feeling of the dining room. After much soul-searching, the board decided to hire part-time off-duty police to monitor the dining room and parking lot during meal service. The result has been an almost total elimination of incidents without impacting the homelike feeling of the dining room. Patrons overwhelmingly appreciate the safety and security provided by the police.