The Driving for Change homelessness support initiative was launched in Westminster on Thursday by London mayor Sadiq Khan ahead of World Homelessness Day on Sunday.
The project, created by coffee shop social enterprise Change Please, has seen two London buses fitted out to provide a ‘one-stop-(free)-shop’ for those experiencing homelessness.
Services will include GP consultations, dental care, showers and haircuts, as well as financial literacy training and therapy assessments. Discussions are also ongoing with the NHS to potentially provide Covid vaccinations.
The buses will run from November for at least two years, and aim to support around 3,000 people across London before expanding with more buses heading to Manchester next year.
Looking further ahead, international ambitions could even see buses touring Paris and Los Angeles.
Big Issue-backed Change Please, which trains homeless people as baristas so they can sell fresh coffee from mobile carts while earning a living wage, launched the scheme as an “urgent intervention” ahead of a potential homelessness crisis -130,000 households are set to be pushed into homelessness by Covid-19.
Khan told The Big Issue: “We’re doing what we can in London with the limited resources we have to support rough sleepers. What we need to do is stop the pipeline of people becoming rough sleepers in the first place.
“Cuts in universal credit, lack of affordable housing, lack of skills for young people for the jobs created – all of these are making things far worse.
The mayor was full of praise for Change Please and The Big Issue.
He added: “One of the reasons I regularly buy the Big Issue and why I am a big supporter is they bring to the fore issues that are below the surface – the numbers of rough sleepers in our city, the numbers that don’t get access to the services they deserve, the life expectancy of rough sleepers.
“I have also been supporting Change Please for a number of years now and Big Issue had a big role to play in Change Please coming about – to give rough sleepers not just the skills to become baristas, but the self-esteem and dignity to get off the streets.
“Double decker buses are the arteries of our city and they’re usually the lifeline for us to get around our city, but now they’re a life saver.”
Thomas Noble has benefitted from the Change Please scheme since its early days, first becoming a barista before then taking on a role as a barista trainer.
He found himself homeless in 2015 and it was around two years before he was able to sort any stable accommodation.
He explained that had the bus service been around when he was experiencing homelessness, he would have found things a lot easier.
He said: “To be on the streets, you are at your lowest point. So going into a regular dentistry place for example, that’s scary stuff, people are going to look at you funny and that’s what puts a lot of people off going. For me, Cemal actually walked me down to the dentist and sat in the waiting room because I was terrified to go.”
Noble has stayed with the organisation every since and has no plans to leave.
“Someone could make you a cup of coffee and not say a word to you and then you just go back to your day […] But for that two or three minute thing, if I’m a little bit cheery or happy, if I say one nice thing to you and make you a really nice cup of coffee, that could make somebody’s day. For me that’s what it’s all about.”
The launch of the buses come shortly after the ending of furlough and cuts to universal credit, both of which are estimated to have a huge impact on the number of people being pushed into homelessness.
CEO and founder Cemal Ezel said: “We believe in the beginning of 2022 we are going to see a huge spike in the number of people who are homeless and we need to intervene now to try to provide services straight to rough sleepers to help rebuild trust in society and provide services that typically might be available, but not in a one-stop shop.
“Buses are a big space we can fit a lot of services onto, they take a relatively small footprint for the number of services provided but at the same time, and they are not intimidating.
“It doesn’t feel like a charity. We hope to break down misconceptions and stereotypes and normalise the service. You’re not walking into a shelter or anything.”
Ezel added: “I think initiatives like Change Please and Big Issue are vital because it’s not a handout but a hand up and we are basically providing an alternative way out of the problem.
“Rather than somebody being dependant on someone else, someone can have their own dignity, self-worth and confidence through employment and they’re not relying on government or handouts.”
HSBC UK, Mastercard and Colgate have partnered with the project and have not only provided funding but will continue to support users as well.
The Big Issue is also working to prevent thousands of people from losing their home through our Stop Mass Homeless campaign.