Meg Abernethy-Hope and Jon Hope with the Billy Chip outside a branch of Greggs. Image: Billy Chip
Anyone picking up their morning coffee may soon discover a new way to help people experiencing homelessness: a poker chip that can be exchanged for a hot drink in a cafe.
Created in memory of Billy Abernethy-Hope, a 20-year-old ambulance driver who died in 2018, the Billy Chip aims to encourage generosity among those who don’t carry cash or those reluctant to give money to people experiencing homelessness.
The Billy Chip is sold in shops around Bristol, Bath, London and beyond. A trial beginning with seven branches of Greggs saw good results, and 2023 sees the family looking to expand.
Jon Hope, Billy’s dad and co-founder of the Billy Chip, says he believes people hold back from giving cash out of a fear it would help feed addictions.
“There are so many people that don’t want to do that but want to help” he says.
”That excuse is gone now.”
The idea started when Billy asked his dad, over a beer, why he didn’t give the coins in a jar of loose change to homeless people. Billy, Jon recalls, was the kind of person who would come out of a nightclub at 4am and sit and chat to a homeless person.
“I was that person who had reservations about giving cash – is it helping an addiction or habit?” Jon recalls.
And so the pair worked on an idea for a token to give people like Jon a way past this reservation. However, things took a tragic turn when Billy died in a motorbike accident in Thailand five years ago.
After Billy’s death, his family organised a memorial festival – FestaBill – with friends donating £2 to attend. What started as a small idea saw Professor Green perform a surprise set and a friend of Jon’s shoot a flaming arrow into a 20ft viking ship that had been made as a memorial for Billy. In the end, 1,000 people turned up and £20,000 was raised.
This was the money that made the Billy Chip a reality.
“Out of something so tragic, it’s been something amazing to put our energy and time into,” says Jon, who quit his job as the director of a renewable energy company to get the project off the ground.
Coffee shops, cafes, and other retailers sign up to Billy Chip and get a starter pack with the blue tokens. Customers buy these chips for £2, to give to a person on the street. This person can then go into a participating shop and redeem the token. As a minimum, shops are asked to provide a hot or cold drink of the bearer’s choice, but some provide more – such as a bag of chips, or food approaching its use-by date.
Compared to giving somebody a hot drink or sandwich directly, the aim is to give the recipient more choice over when and what they need or want.
It’s reminiscent of the Italian tradition of caffé sospeso. Popular in Naples, the “pay it forward” idea translates to suspended coffee: patrons buy a drink and pay for an extra one to be claimed for free by anybody who comes in and asks for a sospeso.
The £2 initially paid by the customer for the chip goes to the Billy Chip charity. The charity in turn pays the retailer £1 for every chip that has been redeemed – with the idea that this should cover the costs of the items given out.
The chip has already become recognisable in Billy’s hometown. “If you hand someone a Billy Chip on the streets of Bristol and Bath they know what it is straight away,” says Jon.
However, the idea of attaching conditions to a donation is a controversial one – Billy Chip’s website says the chip allows the public to “directly donate to rough sleepers without the fear of their donation being misused for drugs or alcohol.”
On an individual level, some argue that you should give money to homeless people directly and unconditionally – without dictating what they are spending it on.
“They’re not four. They have the right to spend their money as they choose – and it is their money, once given,” wrote Matt Broomfield in the New Statesman.
On a larger scale, there is evidence that giving bigger amounts of cash to homeless people can make real change. A 2021 experiment in Canada gave 50 people experiencing homelessness $7,500 each, with no strings attached. Researchers found this reduced homelessness while also saving money overall as the participants were able to use fewer social services.
Jon stresses they don’t see the chip as “better” than giving cash, but acknowledges some people are reluctant to hand over money. He says giving them a way to donate benefits everyone.
While developing the token, Jon also feared it could add to a stigma around homelessness.
“I had concerns that it might be a little bit demeaning or patronising – I want to support you but I don’t trust you, so I’ll give you this token. I wasn’t really that happy with that,” he says.
Going out and speaking to people living on the streets, he says he found the opposite – it created a connection between the givers and the recipients, and gives them more choice than being given a coffee directly.
“I’m glad and happy to have been completely wrong on that.”
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