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The only way is ethics: tackling homelessness

Cemal Ezal from Change Please – a social enterprise that provides homeless people with the skills, equipment and support to become baristas – on the life-changing virtues of ‘patient employment’


Words: Clare Finney

The numbers are staggering: 320,000 recorded homeless. More than 4,000 people sleeping rough each night. But you don’t need statistics, if you live in London, to see that rough sleeping has doubled since 2010. You just need to walk five minutes down a busy street.

To say this is unacceptable is a gross understatement. It is an outrage – one which, in 2015, Cemal Ezel decided he could no longer ignore. He set up Old Spike Roastery in Peckham and, some months later, Change Please: bright, brilliantly coloured mobile coffee carts staffed by homeless people-turned-baristas. He provided training, therapy, financial advice and a step onto the rental market. Most importantly of all, he provided what he calls ‘patient employment’: a job in which those who had spent months, perhaps years on the streets, often as a result of great trauma, could build their confidence, make mistakes, and learn.

“I think the main thing for us is that we offer a ‘job-first’ model. It is purely focused on giving people the ability to be self-dependent, as opposed to reliant on hand outs or donations.” One of the most important aspects of this is the living wage: “If you can pay the living wage of the city – so in London, that’s the London living wage – that person can rent, eat and determine their own future.” The old adage “teach a man to fish” could be described as Cemal’s founding principle: “With £3,000 we could afford to give 300 people sleeping bags. The same amount of money will help less people with our initiative, but the impact will be far bigger.”

The goal, he says, is to enable them to seek employment elsewhere, “so they are no longer dependent on us,” he explains. Some of their staff go on to be baristas or roasters – but they also have alumni working in graphic design or marketing. “We try to understand what their hopes are, recognise what their talents are, and work with them,” says Cemal. One man might struggle with brew times, but produce a beautiful blackboard. “We have had some great artists. We’ve had people go on to set up their own coffee carts,” says Cemal proudly. Their current head roaster, Sebastian, was formerly homeless, and is now responsible for training, roasting and quality assurance of the beans.

Change Please breaks the cycle of poverty not just by giving its employees money and shelter but by giving them a life; a helping hand “out of poverty and into society”. They have to work for it, Cemal continues: “Our criteria aren’t hard and fast, but we do need people to be in the right head space for employment, who want to help themselves. People who are looking to receive money from the council will be begrudging about working,” he says – but their lives will be changed from the moment they are accepted onto the scheme.

Change Please pays a deposit on housing – a deposit being one of the key barriers to the homeless getting back onto the rental ladder in the first place. They underwrite the rent and spend the next six months paying it direct to the landlord by deducting it from their employee’s pay. They then transfer responsibility for rent payments to the tenant, and within another six months he or she has a reference and credit history: the golden ticket to loans, jobs, future rental and phone contracts, and all the other qualifications demanded by the 21st century. Equipped for the outside world, they are encouraged to apply for other employment, beyond Change Please. The cycle is broken, and the work of Change Please is complete.

The potential of Change Please is enormous: the average Londoner drinks two cups of coffee every single day. Yet Change Please is powerless without clients, customers and partners like Borough Market, who champion not just the social aspect of the business, but the quality of their coffee. “Being somewhere like Borough Market is so important, because it’s all about quality and provenance here. You can’t sell here without a minimum standard.”

Customers care about the homeless and social enterprise, of course, but when you’re downing two coffees a day, quality and pricing will always be your priority. “The biggest problem we have is customers assuming the quality of our coffee is compromised because it’s a social enterprise. There’s a deep suspicion of social ventures.” They could not be further from the truth, Cemal argues, pointing to their numerous contracts and awards, granted purely on the basis of quality. “We are actually overcompensating because of this stigma, ensuring our branding focuses less on the social side, and more on the quality of the product we are trying to sell” – that is, single-estate, directly traded coffee, hand roasted by beneficiaries who are trained and mentored day-to-day by fully qualified coffee industry professionals.

We don’t need to taste the coffee at Change Please to know it’s a good one. We can sense it: the aroma, the sound of laughter and the warm feeling of hope which emanates from the stall.