Two nights ago, Liam slept on a bus. He's been homeless for a year and a half now, on and off. When he turned 18, his dad decided it was time for him to make it by himself and chucked him out of the house. Ever since then he's been relying on the help of friends, getting jobs here and there, trying to make ends meet.
Four days ago he came across a film crew in Covent Garden. They were interviewing a guy about a project called Change Please – a coffee truck staffed by homeless people with the strapline "Good coffee does good". Liam thought it looked interesting. "I gave them my number, I said, "Call me if you need anyone". Two days later the phone rang – they wanted me to start straight away".
That call came from Cemal Ezel, one half of the duo behind Change Please, which aims to train homeless people as baristas, helping them off the streets and into long-term employment. Cemal's co-conspirator is John Bird, best known as founder of the Big Issue (the British equivalent of Situation Stockholm).
On first look, this could be any other coffee truck in the city. The only giveaway that this is a charity endeavour are peel-off stickers on the coffee-cups themselves, revealing messages like "I gave your barista a second shot" and "I'm more than your average pick me up" – even then, it's barely noticeable. Cemal says this is deliberate. "We don't want people to say, "look over there we're helping people who are homeless". We're not a community café, we're doing portable speciality coffee and we're giving hope and dignity to people that are on the streets and homeless."
At the moment, they only a handful of trucks and employ about 12 people, but they hope to grow fast, aiming for 100 employees by next year. On reflection it's a no-brainer – a Robin Hood business model that taps into the bourgeois trend for flat whites and redistributes the profit to the needy.
And it couldn't have come any sooner. The number of rough-sleepers on the streets increased by 14 percent between 2013-14 while in London that figure rose by 37 percent. A chronic lack of affordable housing and massive cuts to benefits means independent charities like the Big Issue are a lifeline in providing purpose for people in some of the worst positions in society, but there's only so much they can do. What is really needed, says Cemal, is a new initiative, something to get homeless people into employment while providing opportunities for progression and a roof over their head.
Change Please aims to fill this gap. When I meet Cemal he's at pains to stress the difference between Change Please and other community-oriented projects. A former commodities trader turned social entrepreneur, he knows London, both in terms of its geography and its culture. He also knows where the money is. Already, he's looking to spread Change Please into the buildings of big businesses including Barclays and universities such as LSE. He's targeting a market he used to be part of – affluent urban professionals. And these people spend a lot of money on coffee.
Cemal's journey from trader to coffee truck was a classic "midlife crisis" he tells me. "I was in the corporate world and I went to Vietnam travelling with my girlfriend. I met this guy who told me I should do something called the "rocking chair test" which is looking back on your life when you're 90 to see what you've achieved, what you've done, and then almost writing an obituary so to speak."
"Mine wasn't that great, it was all about me as a person, me individually and just the things that everyone else does on a day to day basis – you know, how to pay rent, your targets at work. There was nothing really exciting, I wasn't do anything for anyone else or for the world."
When he returned to England he decided to take a course in social enterprise before setting up the Old Spike, a coffee roastery based in Peckham, South London, employing homeless people. That was when he met John Bird and Nigel Kershaw, the chief executives of the Big Issue, and they decided to try and think of a way of combining the two projects.
One of the big ways in which Change Please differs from the Big Issue is the way in which it provides support – for example, underwriting tenancy agreements so employees can actually rent a house. "We try and combine housing and employment in helping people who work for us", says Cemal. "On one level that means we provide a London living wage for all our employees, which means they should be able to afford a house in London. But also one of the biggest difficulties is that even if someone has found a job, they still don't have any references, any background, any credibility to be able to rent even a studio. So we take responsibility by guaranteeing that rent for a person because we know our staff are going to be able to afford it."
For Liam, the appeal of selling coffee instead the Big Issue is clear to him: "As a business model it works better because newspapers can be read only once, but you drink coffee once, twice, many times a day. It's winter now so people want keep warm, reading a magazine isn't at the front of their mind. For me it's better as well because I am paid hourly instead of getting a cut like with the Big Issue, so I don't have to worry about what I'm going to end up with at the end of the day."
Cemal also wants Change Please to give their staff the potential for real career progression. "At the moment we are in discussions with other coffee shops so baristas with Change Please can move into other jobs once they're trained and open up spaces for new trainees", he says.
And as the company plans to roll out new trucks to places like Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Bristol, Nottingham over the next year, there will also be opportunities to move up within the project itself.
Liam may only be on his third day, but already he's got bigger plans. Once he's been trained, he explains to me, he has sights set on a managerial role within the project. "Maybe I'll get my own truck and I can start training people up people I know who need help. Other people like me."
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