Street smart: How businesses are offering a route back to work for the homeless

26 March 2019 by

In our third feature on the staffing crisis in hospitality, Andy Lynes looks at the charities and businesses who are supporting the homeless into sustainable employment

Every cloud has a silver lining, as the old cliché goes, and the staffing difficulties currently faced by the hospitality industry are no exception. This is a golden opportunity to build on the successes of a number of initiatives across the sector to help the homeless return to or enter the workplace for the first time, benefiting both the individual and the industry while also helping to address one of the country's most pervasive and persistent social issues. There are currently 320,000 people in the UK who are homeless or in temporary accommodation, according to housing charity Shelter, including between 4,000 and 5,000 sleeping on the streets each night.

The initiatives are widespread. Launched in 2017, Hotel School is a partnership between Jeremy Goring of the Goring hotel in London's Belgravia and its near neighbour, the Passage Homeless Resource Centre in Victoria, which teaches hospitality skills to homeless and vulnerable people, matches them to sustainable employment, and supports them in their first steps into work.

Hotel School
Hotel School

Chef Simon Boyle's Beyond Food charity helps homeless adults, or those at risk of homelessness, back into long-term and meaningful employment by training them as apprentice chefs at Brigade bistro and bar, a social enterprise restaurant. Launched in a converted fire station near London Bridge in 2011, the venture operates in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers, De Vere Venues and the Homes and Communities Agency.

Pret A Manger also has its own registered charity, the Pret Foundation, which has run the Rising Stars programme since 2008, employing, training and supporting 50 homeless people a year (see panel).

Meanwhile, in Birmingham, Evolve, a social enterprise with coffee shops and events spaces in Digbeth and Selly Park, provides training and employment to young people facing barriers to accessing the workplace, including homelessness.

For businesses considering joining this ever-expanding group (see below for further examples), the recently launched initiative Only A Pavement Away (OAPA) might offer the most simple and straightforward solution. Launched by former hospitality consultant Greg Mangham and his wife Gill in 2017, OAPA works with charities and associations including Crisis, St Mungo's and Emmaus House to take people from homelessness and rough sleeping (as well as prisons and the military) into work through an integrated process involving employers (they currently have 24 on board, with more in the pipeline) and a network of support.

"We are looking to become the charity for the employment of vulnerable people within the hospitality industry. We are now about to contact every homeless charity in the UK, all 1,200 of them, to see which of them help get people into work, and they will come onto the programme," says Mangham. "We have a jobs board and an applicant tracking system which, if they meet our criteria, employers can use free of charge. We are the conduit, and it doesn't cost anybody anything. What we're going to be saying to the industry is that if you really believe in this and you want to do it, this is an organised, processed way to do it."

Tim Foster, owner of the Yummy Pub Co, a group of six pubs in London, Kent and Surrey, is an active supporter of OAPA. Foster has spent the past seven years working with the New Horizon Youth Centre in Euston, London, which neighbours his Somers Town Coffee House pub, helping them in their activities supporting homeless 16- to 21-year-olds in finding accommodation, training and employment.

Tim Foster, Yummy Pub Co, Cateys
Tim Foster from Yummy Pub Co (second from left) and his team collecting the 2018 Education and Training Catey

OAPA has ambitious targets, aiming to fill 500 jobs on its online jobs board in its first year. "We spoke to an employer who said they were spending a million pounds a year on recruitment, training and induction. We're saying, 'If we can reduce that bill by £250,000, because you don't have to spend the money on recruitment, and a lot of employees will come with training, why not make a donation to us?'"

Although OAPA will help every step of the way, with prospective employees going through initial assessment, training and preparation for interviews and then arranging for 12 months post-engagement support from relevant charities and associations, employers still need to be aware of the sort of commitment required in dealing with a homeless person, who may have a history of alcohol or substance abuse, a criminal record or mental health issues.

"One thing that ties homeless people together is that they feel excluded and isolated from society. Once you start to feel that way, it's a fast-moving juggernaut downhill and people lose the ability to help themselves, to create relationships and keep hold of them," says Boyle, who has helped more than 1,200 homeless people through Beyond Food, with many going on to full-time employment. "It's fine to say you want to help homeless people and employ them, but are you able and best-placed to support them in the right way? People take time to move on and transit their situations, so that means that their behaviour, attitudes and self-esteem are all on ground zero until they start to build their confidence up. It takes time, which means you have to be tolerant."

Employers also need to be prepared for potential failure. "We've had 87 kids in total go through the business successfully," says Foster. "Our success rate is about one in three; the failures are due to anything from them slipping back into drugs, getting too much money and not knowing what to do with it, or falling back into wanting to be back on the street and not being able to deal with anything else because of mental health issues."

That said, hospitality is, perhaps more than any other industry, ideally suited to benefit from releasing the potential of homeless people. "There's an enormous variation of different job roles within hospitality; it's very broad, which means all sorts of different people who couldn't do anything else can somehow find their niche in hospitality," says Goring, who has seen the most recent cohort of 15 students at Hotel School achieve a 100% attendance rate.

Boyle agrees: "You don't necessarily need qualifications; the industry can be quite forgiving. It's also changing so that casual dining is at a point where actually, it's more about giving good hospitality, and that means being courteous and happy to be there. Rather than taking years and years to become skilled, you can do it relatively quickly. What we can't teach is to have a good attitude – they've got to come with that."

Simon Boyle and Ben, a Beyond Food recruit
Simon Boyle and Ben, a Beyond Food recruit

It's clear that helping homeless people into or back to the workplace is a time-consuming, resource-hungry process and, therefore, can't be viewed as a possible panacea to the hospitality industry's staffing woes, but the increasing focus on the issue and multiplying initiatives are helping to make a palpable difference.

"I think we could make a tiny dent in it, and every little bit helps," says Goring. "We're 300% oversubscribed at the moment and we would easily triple our output of graduates; currently we have about 100 people a year, we could be doing 200-300 if we had enough space. We are working very hard with a bunch of partners to try and identify somewhere we can move. There's certainly no limit to how many volunteers that we can recruit, because people are contacting us constantly, asking how they can help, and we're highly appreciative of it."

"I don't think there's any silver bullet," says Foster. "There are so many charities, there are so many stats, but actually nobody's got a clue to how big the actual problem is; but if we can make a significant contribution in just one person's life, then we've succeeded."

The Caterer's staffing special

In light of the sector's well-publicised staffing woes, operators need to be thinking more outside the box than ever when it comes to recruitment. In this, the third in a series of features detailing how to engage previously under-utilised demographics, we investigate how businesses can tap into the talent pool of the homeless. In the coming weeks we will cover the recruitment of the elderly and those with disabilities.

Who's helping the homeless and how

Kilted Lobster, Edinburgh( runs the Cooking Up a Storm social enterprise, which includes a programme of workplace and job training for individuals with barriers to work, with bespoke training leading to industry jobs.

House of St Barnabas, London( is a Soho members' club with an integrated employment academy, offering training, qualifications and employment to the homeless.

The House of St Barnabas
The House of St Barnabas

Ennismore, London( is the owner and operator of hotel brand the Hoxton. It is working with charity partner Shelter from the Storm, which offers a free emergency night shelter for the homeless, to help plan, renovate and open a new permanent home in North London.

Old Spike Roastery, London( is a coffee roastery with a mission to train and employ homeless people. The business partners with the Big Issue on the Change Please programme (, to train homeless people to become baristas.

Itihaas, Birmingham( is working with Let's Feed Brum ( to offer employment at Itihaas restaurant to the homeless of Birmingham.

Urban Emporiums, Birmingham( is partnering with Sifa Fireside charity (, which supports homeless and vulnerably housed adults to have safe, settled lives and employs homeless people in its cafés.

Case study: Pret's Rising Stars programme

• Pret has donated unsold food to the homeless since it opened its first shop in 1986 and now donates more than three million meals across the UK every year. Its Rising Stars programme was set up in 2008 to do more to help break the cycle of homeless by offering training, employment and a regular salary.

• Rising Stars is a programme of the Pret Foundation, a registered charity founded in 1995. It's funded by donations made from the sale of some Pret products (10p from every large soup sold throughout the year and 50p from Christmas menu items), plus contributions to the collection boxes in Pret shops. In 2018, the Pret Foundation raised £1.93m.

• Pret works very closely with a number of charities who refer potential employees on to the programme. The Pret Foundation team then meet with them in an informal interview process. Most of the people referred onto the programme are staying in shelters or other accommodation by the time they start with Pret.

• The Rising Stars programme takes on 50 ex-homeless people each year and provides them with a job, which includes training in Pret shops, as well as one-to-one counselling, weekly chat groups and creative art sessions.

• A Rising Star position is paid at the same starting rate as any other Pret employee. After 14 weeks, Pret's Rising Stars graduate and are offered a permanent contract working as a team member in either the kitchen or front of house.

• Almost 80% of Rising Stars graduate from the programme to become full-time Pret team members, while others have gone on to build careers beyond Pret; one has become a full-time professional wrestler and another a chef.

• In February this year, Pret House opened at West London Mission St Luke's, providing accommodation for up to 13 people at a time, employment and access to expert advice to help them transition into the private rented market.

A word from the wise on employing homeless people

"There are a lot of great organisations doing great things, and we spend a lot of time learning from other people who do similar stuff to us, and we're slowly getting there. Every mistake we make, we learn from it, but I don't think we've learned everything there is to learn from others who are doing what we do."

Jeremy Goring, the Goring hotel, London

"Just go for it – it isn't as scary as people would have you believe. People that have been through a lot of tough times in their life and are still here, trying to make a change, are some of the most resilient, hard-working, solution-focused and creative people out there and an asset to any workforce."

Kate Hemming, Evolve, Birmingham

Raj Rana Itihaas, Birmingham
Raj Rana

"It can be extremely spiritually rewarding, and the dividend comes from making such a dramatic impact on a person's life. As business owners we are all very blessed individuals and we should give back to the community and society by offering a chance to those that humanity has forgotten."

Raj Rana, Itihaas, Birmingham

"We're pretty strict now with our homeless employees. Whereas before we would give them a lot of leeway compared to the rest of our team, we've now realised that it's the wrong thing to do. If they're committed to wanting to change their lives, they can turn up for work on time and they won't ring in sick, so we've grown up as we've got used to how to deal with the situation."

Tim Foster, Yummy Pub Co

"We have an employee support and progression manager and a mental health counsellor – that's fundamental. While they're learning to become a chef or a waiter or a barman, they need that full support package around them, and that means everything from helping them with their debt to helping with accommodation and their personal and professional relationships. They need more support than seeing someone for 20 minutes once a week."

Simon Boyle, Beyond Food

From our sponsor

Homelessness has recently skyrocketed across Britain. An estimated 320,000 people lack settled homes, resorting to sleeping rough in the streets, parks and less visible locations, including derelict buildings and temporary accommodation. Homeless people can be affected by addiction, poor mental health and time in prison, which hamper efforts to help and create a stigma – a further challenge for already vulnerable people.

The government has committed to ending rough sleeping by 2027, while its many causes – including eviction, losing a job, or leaving an abusive relationship – are becoming more understood.

Many are doing important work to help, from running courses to providing accommodation and employment. Hospitality is a broad church, welcoming people from diverse backgrounds; the industry should further publicly recognise how it helps people and tackle negative perceptions. In doing so, the sector could broaden its appeal, cementing its importance in the economy and mitigating staffing problems, like Brexit and long-term recruitment and retention challenges.

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