From parliament to coffee carts: a mission to dismantle poverty

Jattinder works as a barista for a coffee cart in Canary Wharf selling Old Spike Roastery coffee, but just six months ago Jattinder was homeless.

In and out of prison, sleeping in a stairwell of a block of flats, Jattinder met John Bird, founder of the Big Issue, during the making of a BBC documentary on homelessness. A short introduction later and Jattinder became part of Change Please, a social enterprise that trains homeless people as baristas. The programme gives homeless people the chance to earn a living and supports them in finding housing, with the aim of supporting

John Bird is on a mission to dismantle poverty. After 25 years fighting for this cause, John Bird, founder of The Big Issue, is continuing to advocate on behalf of the homeless from two unexpected places: parliament and coffee carts.

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Credit Change Please

Since being founded in the early 1990s, The Big Issue has empowered thousands of people to help themselves. Having experienced homelessness himself, John was familiar with the myriad of challenges that the homeless face: poverty, social exclusion, and depression, amongst others. In order to dismantle cycles of homelessness, John has focused his efforts on the people who were in the best position to tackle these problems: homeless people themselves.

Emerging from these principles, The Big Issue was born: it is a magazine sold by homeless and long-term unemployed people.

The Big Issue connects vendors with the vital support that enables them to rebuild their lives. It is the world’s most circulated street paper, selling editions in a dozen countries from Zambia to Japan and having inspired over 100 other street papers in over 40 countries.

Now, vendors are selling something else: coffee.

Supported by The Big Issue, Change Please is a social enterprise that empowers homeless people to improve their lives. Founded by social entrepreneur Cemal Ezel, recent winner of Virgin Start-Up Competition, Change Please believes that coffee should taste good and do good. Like The Big Issue, Change Please provides a competitive and high quality product, while simultaneously changing people’s lives.

How does it work? The Big Issue refers its vendors or high potential candidates who are experiencing homelessness to Change Please, and those that complete a one-month training course are then employed. Change Please offers all employees housing, a living wage, a bank account and opportunities for onwards employment after six months. All money made through coffee sales will be used to develop the programme further and train the next wave of baristas. Still in its pilot phase, Change Please has now opened eight coffee carts across London, from Canary Wharf to Kennington Station. It has already employed 12 people, four of whom have moved on to other employment and further education, with two former employees setting up their own businesses.

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Credit Change Please

John believes that models like Change Please provide proof that, with support and opportunity, vulnerable people can pull themselves out of poverty. “Dismantling poverty is giving people support while they’re in poverty, so it becomes a hand up, not a hand out.”

Looking forward towards the future, John is continuing the fight against poverty at the highest level of UK policy-making: the House of Lords. John began his appointment with a bang, inviting forty Big Issue vendors into the Houses of Parliament to amplify the voices and needs of homeless people across the UK. Believing that the government isn’t addressing the systemic and root causes of poverty, John argues that people need to start asking the right questions in order to form the right solutions. “It’s a problem when you have 90 per cent of your social money going into emergency, coping and stabilising, and very little on prevention and cure. Then you get a situation where people are treading water. A number of parliamentarians recognise that and I want to be able to offer them an alternative.”

Despite the many challenges, John sees hope for reforms within parliament to prioritise not only poverty, but also solutions to dismantle poverty.

The Big Issue has directly supported thousands of homeless people, changed the perceptions of millions of readers, and pioneered a global revolution of self-help. John is continually looking for new innovative solutions to create opportunities for those at the margins, calling for strategic and intentional change from both the highest level of power in parliament as well as from your morning cup of coffee.

By Tatiana Cary, Communications, Ashoka UK. For more information on Ashoka Fellows like John Bird, follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

This article was first featured on 17th May

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