Every morning, Paul leaves a derelict room in a field, where he lives, and walks for two hours to the soup kitchen in Valletta.

There, he is fed and given candles to take back to the place he reluctantly calls home.

The candles are no Christmas ornaments.

“I have no electricity or water, just candle power,” he explains.

“I’ve been in that room for several years. The door is coming off.

“The soup kitchen is like a ray of sunshine for me because I used to eat out of bins. That’s the bottom line. It’s a burden off my back,” said Paul, an Englishman who asked for his name to be changed.

He is one of the 90 people who turn up daily at the Valletta soup kitchen, run by the Franciscan Friars.

The kitchen opened in August and offers lunches, packed meals for supper, showers and laundry facilities as well as legal support and a barber service. It will soon be offering a psychiatrist’s support.

Fr Marcellino Micallef, who runs the kitchen, says about 90 per cent of the people who turn up are Maltese, most aged over 40.

Among their main problems are alcoholism and drug addiction, with many turning to the Franciscans during a time of crisis.

“It is easy to judge these people. But the truth is that anyone can become poor overnight if they are hit by a health or financial crisis,” said Fr Marcellino.

“Here we have people with mental health problems, people who were abused as children, people who come from a generational pattern of social problems. Then there are the victims of usury.

“To us the people here are our guests. Our motto is 'Life with Dignity'.”

It is easy to judge these people. But the truth is that anyone can become poor overnight if they are hit by a health or financial crisis

They are often labelled as criminals, he said. “But poverty is not the fault of individuals, it is the fault of a system that does not cater for those who fall through the cracks.”

What is clear from a visit to the soup kitchen is that the majority of people are in a bubble, blind to the harsh realities faced by so many others.

Just walking into the place on St Ursula Street is a reality check, a stark contrast to the festive spirit a few streets away, where people are happily sipping coffees and buying gifts for loved ones.

Inside, people slowly start gathering at tables and, before food is served, Fr Marcellino says a prayer and shares a few words. As volunteers start serving food – a three-course meal – I chat with a few of those being served.

How did you get to this point, I ask Paul. Life was always tough on him, he replies. But it spiralled downwards over the past three years and he ended up in that room in the field.

“Before, I used to ‘borrow’ candles from the Daphne memorial in Valletta,” he chuckles, as he hides his face in embarrassment. “Now they give me candles here.”

At 14 he went to a home for children after his parents were both killed in a traffic accident… a few days before Christmas.

“This time of year is very hard for me. They were driving and they crashed into a large vehicle,” he says as he cradles a cup of hot coffee.

Paul moved to Malta 32 years ago when he met his Maltese wife and lived in her family property. When their marriage broke down, he ended up homeless.

He then lost his job as a security guard. He does not have social benefits, he says, since he lost his ID card and does not have the documents needed to renew it.

Lawyers from the soup kitchen are trying to help him solve this issue.

As Paul walks away, a 43-year-old Egyptian man steps into the room and sits down. He works in construction but when he is out of work, he struggles to make ends meet.

“They are very nice here. I come here when I don’t have money and I need to eat,” he says.

A Libyan man makes his way in on crutches, his right leg in a cast.

He is a plasterer but his injury, sustained when he was run over a few months ago, prevents him from working. He can’t afford food as his every cent goes to cover rent.  Before I head out, a man with a beaming smile and missing teeth tells me how he spends his entire days in Valletta and sleeps on some steps in the capital.

The soup kitchen offers him and the others more than food. It offers warmth and dignity.

This is their reality. This is their bubble.

For more information about the soup kitchen and to support the initiative, visit www.soupkitchenofmvalletta.com.

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