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Homelessness charity launches 'pay-it-forward' café

A new coffee shop, launched by homelessness charity Social Bites, will let people buy food for homeless people.

Photo of Social Bite cafe, with London bus in front

The Social Bite café. Image: Social Bite

A new coffee shop will operate a ‘pay-it-forward’ system allowing customers to buy a meal or hot drink for someone experiencing homelessness.

The café is located in Westminster, the area with the highest rate of rough sleeping in England – more than three times as many as Manchester.

It is the sixth launched by homelessness charity Social Bite, and its first site outside of Scotland. The café will employ three people who have experienced homelessness, as well as employing a full-time support worker, who will provide them with practical and emotional support.

“The idea behind [the café] is that it competes in the high street environment with the big competitors, but ultimately, it is a social mission that underpins it”, says Social Bite co-founder Josh Littlejohn.

“It’s not just about giving someone a free lunch or free hot drink: it’s about the psychological element. If you are in a situation of homelessness, you tend to feel quite stigmatised, and quite excluded and marginalised, so just being able to access a high street environment, to join a queue alongside some office workers and be treated as a customer. That’s quite an important psychological element beyond the food.”

Social Bite started life as a sandwich shop in Edinburgh, back in 2012. Since then, the social enterprise has dramatically expanded, becoming a major player in the fight against homelessness in Scotland.

It is now the UK’s largest distributor of free fresh food to homeless people, supplying 180,000 items each year. The pandemic saw Social Bite distribute over 800,000 emergency food packs and essential items.

The charity has been closely involved in the development of Scotland’s Housing First programme, which has housed more than 454 rough sleepers so far. The Social Bite Village – built by the charity in 2018 ­– has served as a ‘blueprint’, demonstrating the difference that independent housing can make for those recovering from homelessness.

The Edinburgh café has even attracted high-profile visitors such as Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney, and several members of the royal family.

“When we opened the first café, it didn’t really have anything to do with the homelessness issue”, says Littlejohn. “There was a young man called Pete, who was 19 years old, and he was selling the Big Issue magazine just outside the front door of the café.

“He came in one day, plucked up the courage, and he asked us if he could have a job. And we thought: ‘Why not?’, and we gave him the job in our kitchen”, he continued.

“That’s how it originated 10 years ago, and we started to offer jobs in the café to people that were largely local Big Issue sellers. We realised just how important employment could be for someone to give them that foundation to change their lives.”

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