A cup of kindness

Categories: Features

Backed by the Big Issue, Change Please is a social enterprise whose mobile coffee vans, including one at Borough Market, offer homeless people a route back into employment and housing. Market Life drops by for a latte and a life lesson

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Joseph Fox

“I never used to be the kind of person who would stress about birthdays. But I’m 50 in a month’s time and, well, when I think of my old life...” Paul trails off for a moment. “I’m a working class East Ender, don’t get me wrong, but back then we were annoyed if we didn’t get four holidays a year. We shopped at Borough Market. I turned down a 40-grand job because we didn’t need it. I’d bite your hand off now of course...”

Paul is homeless. Has been for almost a year now, thanks to a messy series of events which could, all too easily, happen to pretty much anyone: estrangement from his wife, an expensive custody battle, unemployment, housing benefit hurdles, eviction. For several months, he found himself sleeping rough.

But things are looking up. Since February, he has been a barista for Change Please, a charity which roasts and serves quality coffee while providing its destitute staff with employment records, bank accounts and permanent addresses. The social enterprise has been trading at Borough Market since April, but Paul first came across one of its distinctive vans outside his hostel in Elephant & Castle.

“I was looking at the van and the guy gave me a coffee, which was so nice,” Paul recalls. “He told me a bit more about the charity and I googled it later that day. When I saw what it was about, I started evangelising about it everywhere I could.” One evening, returning to the hostel, he found someone “messing about with the van”, so he leapt to its defence and asked “this dodgy geezer” what he was up to. Paul smiles properly for the first time since I met him. “Turns out this dodgy geezer was Cemal.”

An 18-hour bus journey
Cemal Ezel is co-founder of both Change Please and the Peckham-based roastery that fuels it, Old Spike. A former investment banker, he became interested in social enterprise after realising that some of his employer’s investments “didn’t really sit well with me, put it that way”. He soon found himself on an 18-hour bus journey through Vietnam.

“About an hour into the journey, an American I was chatting with mentioned ‘the rocking chair test’”—a test which essentially means asking yourself what, aged 90, you would want to have achieved in your life. It left Cemal with 17 hours in which to conclude: “I wasn’t doing the good I wanted to see in the world.”

While in Vietnam, he visited a ‘silent tea house’ run by deaf women who couldn’t get other employment. The place was peaceful and beautiful, but it also taught him an important lesson about that most business-like catchphrase: the ‘bottom line’. “A job doesn’t have to be head or heart. You can do a lot of good by being business-like, I realised. I thought maybe I’d set up a tea house in Clapham run by homeless people.”

It was only after experiencing another epiphany (“I don’t like tea and I don’t like Clapham”) and joining up with business partner Richard Robinson that the coffee van idea began to take shape.

Spike Roastery

Sourcing, service and taste
It was more commercial for a start, the mark up for coffee being far higher than tea—even posh tea—and while he didn’t know much about coffee himself, he knew someone who did. Rob Dunne—coffee credentials: Climpson and Sons, Tap Coffee and The Creative Coffee Consultancy—has been instrumental in ensuring Change Please meets the highest standards in sourcing, service and taste.

“We wanted to look at the whole chain: from where the bean comes from, to processing our waste in an environmentally friendly fashion.” The beans come from around the world, the chief stipulations being that they are good quality and from socially-minded plantations: in Peru, the beans are picked by victims of domestic violence; in Tanzania, by survivors of landmines.

From there, they are transported to Old Spike to be roasted (green energy from Ecotricity powers the roasters) by Paul and other homeless beneficiaries of Change Please. Even the cups, from Vegware, are biodegradable.

Paul’s route on to the scheme via a borderline assault on its founder was, to say the least, unconventional: most are referred by Shelter, Crisis and other outfits which, as Cemal points out wryly, know the world of homelessness a lot better than he does. If the boot fits, they are passed through the ‘employment viability’ test of working as a Big Issue vendor.

Another rainy day
Sixty per cent of candidates fail to make it past this stage: selling the Big Issue day in, day out is no mean feat, as every street corner in London daily illustrates. If you can stick it out as a vendor, it says a lot about your money management skills, customer interaction, timekeeping and ability to stay motivated in the face of another blank look on another rainy day.

Those who get on to the Change Please scheme say it’s like hitting the jackpot: “Professional training, support into housing, a bank account, occupational therapy, a London living wage,” Cemal continues. It doesn’t take a mathematical wizard to work out it’s a better deal than some grim zero hours contract elsewhere.

Homelessness is a cycle. Without an address you can’t get a job or a bank account; you can’t get a job or a bank account without an address. Part of the power of Change Please lies in its recognition that breaking this cycle is not as simple as just giving somebody a job. “Most landlords demand evidence that a person has paid rent on a regular basis,” says Cemal. “They demand a deposit. You can’t provide either if you’ve lived on the streets.”

What, thought Cemal, if Change Please were to underwrite the rent and pay the deposit, at risk to the business, but with a view to eventually transferring responsibility to the tenant? “Their rent will come from us, automatically deducted from their pay packet, and in five or six months the tenant takes over and starts paying it.”

Spike Roastery coffee beans

The golden ticket
They build a credit history—the golden ticket to loans, jobs, phone contracts and a whole lot else in life—and the landlord, pleased by the arrangement, is more inclined to take on a Change Please beneficiary henceforth. Cemal and his team are building relationships with private landlords and social housing, and are even looking at purchasing their own housing stock in tandem with the Big Issue, the support partner and co-creator of the Change Please brand.

“They’ve brought connections, advice, knowledge and credibility,” says Cemal gratefully. “You see the Big Issue, you think homelessness. They bring huge integrity to the brand.”

The Big Issue is a model: one which, back in 1991, was pioneering in its ‘hand up, not hand out’ approach to helping the homeless. When Cemal met Nigel Kershaw, executive chair of the Big Issue’s investment arm, he too was thinking about coffee as a means of capturing an audience the magazine was failing to enthrall.

On a daily basis, more people want a coffee than want a mag. Risko, a film student turned barista who trains beneficiaries and can often be found manning the Borough Market van, says: “People are jaded. All too often the reason a charity doesn’t get off the ground is because it’s too much effort for people to take part.” At Change Please, he continues, “they are not asking for donations, they are selling you coffee and you can see the results in front of your eyes.”

Good coffee with a smile
The baristas are well trained, serving good coffee with a smile, but at the requisite speed for a stressed morning commuter. “People primarily buy coffee because they want coffee,” says Risko. “It’s a bonus for them if they find out that buying it here also does good.” Too often people running social enterprises make the mistake of assuming people will choose their product simply because it’s doing good, Cemal explains, when in fact altruism has its price. “If the alternative is cheaper and of a similar quality, they will go there.”

The last five years has seen the London coffee scene change dramatically; from where he stands in Borough Market, Risko can see Flat Cap, Good Beans and Rabot 1745, and The Colombian Coffee Co and the venerable Monmouth Coffee are only just out of sight. Within a spit of its peers, Change Please has to compete on both quality and sustainability.

“We’re so proud to be at the Market,” glows Cemal. “In terms of the standards in food, the family community and its environmental credentials, it fits us perfectly. I can’t think of a better place to be.”

At first, Cemal was hesitant about shouting about the Change Please mission, preferring instead to focus on the quality of the coffee. “In Canary Wharf, we had a sign saying ‘the best coffee or your money back’,” he says, “because the assumption is often that because the company is a social enterprise, the product will be less tasty.”

A selling point
Now, almost six months in and with the support of institutions like the BBC and Borough Market behind him, he is more confident in making Change Please’s USP just that: a selling point. “We’re currently going through a bold rebrand. The sign at Canary Wharf still says something similar, but alongside best coffee, we talk about the social benefits to the homeless.” Provided we serve the best coffee we can, he continues bravely, we should be talking about that all the time.

Because it’s a massive issue. In London alone, 8,096 people slept rough last year—a six per cent rise on the year before. That’s before you take into account people camping on their friends’ floors and sofas or confined to hostels, like Paul.

“We spend billions each year on hot drinks in this country. If it is possible for Change Please to get just one per cent of that market...” Paul looks, for the first time, hopeful. “This is an amazing organisation and it could help me. I don’t want to turn 50 crammed in with a load of backpackers. But mostly, I want to see my children again.”