Is giving money to homeless people the right way to help them? It’s a controversial issue. Avoiding the uncertainty, London’s coffee scene is providing an alternative solution.

Second Shot is a café in Bethnal Green using coffee to tackle the problem of homelessness. They employ rough sleepers to help them start earning and work towards a permanent living space. They also encourage customers to buy discounted food and drinks for a homeless person to pick up later. These two components offer Londoners a real way to offer a helping hand.

The question is, does it work? According to Julius Ibrahim, the founder of Second Shot, over 4,000 coffees have been pre-paid and given out alongside 1,600 items of food. This is an incredible success that should be celebrated. On top of this, Second Shot held a Christmas meal for many of their local regulars, giving out a large donation of sleeping bags that they received. In doing so, they have helped to mitigate the effects of being homeless.

While the results speak for themselves, it has not been an easy ride to get there. Julius explained about the challenges involved, when someone’s trying to get used to working after spending time on the streets. He said that “even just the idea of getting into a regular routine is really difficult.” Another issue is that the system is open to abuse. There is no easy way to disprove someone claiming to be homeless even if it looks unlikely.

Although there are obstacles, Second Shot has risen past them. The biggest rewards are in those employees who turn their lives around. One past team member was unemployed for 15 years and struggled with addiction. At Second Shot, he worked his way up until he was given the responsibility of opening the café by himself. Now, he is looking to create a street food business with his skills as a chef. This is the biggest success, they are not only providing support but are also healing lives.

In addition to the social side of Second Shot, it also excels as a café in itself. There is a spacious feel to the venue which is emphasised by the glass frontage. The furniture is up-cycled, the tables having uniquely formed metal legs. Coffee bags and equipment is on display highlighting the focus they put on getting the basics right. Beans in which they trust and the knowhow to make the perfect cup of joe. Drinking a flat white made with a Square Mile Seasonal Espresso Blend was smooth and well crafted. Over this, I spoke to Julius about how the café came together and what he has managed to achieve.

Tim Copeland: Julius, tell ,me, how did the idea come about?

Julius Ibrahim: Whilst I was at university, I was doing social enterprise things, helping other students launch their own projects and consulting with other social enterprises. I wanted to do something in homelessness myself. I was more motivated by the social impact side of it and it was more the case of speaking to different people and seeing what solutions would work and what I could execute really well. I’d worked in restaurants before and had a passion for coffee but had never actually worked in the coffee industry. It was a natural fit in bringing it all together.

TC: What makes you think a coffee shop is the right way to tackle homelessness?

JI: I think that a coffee shop is a really great place for two reasons. For the people that we employ, it’s a great, relaxed atmosphere where you can increase your confidence and speak to 200 people a day. This helps you feel like an active participant in society again. There’s a lot of transferable skills of working here and getting into regular routines is essential. We have a really high focus on quality so putting that into people makes working in a coffee shop a really great vehicle to go off and do something else. It’s really great from that perspective and it’s also really great from our customers side because what we’re doing here is that we’re having a social impact, but we’re also producing some of the best quality coffee in London. So, from the customers side they’re not having to sacrifice anything but they know that everyday, just by coming in here and getting their cup of coffee anyway they’re contributing towards something bigger.

TC: How does the pay-it-forward system work?

JI: The way our pay-it-forward system works is that homeless people or rough sleepers come in at any point in the day just like any other customer. Anyone can contribute to the wall, allowing someone else to get a freebie out of it.  When someone comes in and takes something off the wall for free, most people are like ‘what’s that?’ asking how the pay it forward wall works and then will come up and contribute themselves.

TC: What’s your favourite team success story?

JI: The biggest success story we’ve had is a guy called Edge. He was with us for five months. He came to us with a lot of complex health issues, he’d been out of work for fifteen years and struggled with addiction. He came to work with a really amazing attitude and started off doing the dishes and till but by the end, he was opening and closing up shop. He’s actually an amazing chef by trade and what we were able to do was find him a local kitchen where he made cakes and other treats that we sold at the café. He was able to get skillset back, and his personal growth over those five months was incredible to see. He’s now trying to set up a street food stall and it’s really great to see him doing something with food.

There are a variety of social enterprises who are using coffee to tackle social issues. This is one of the hallmarks of the London coffee scene. While high quality coffee can be found across London, we need to back those individuals using it to help those in need. For Londoners, it can be hard to know how to help but one way that’s a proven success is Second Shot.

Second Shot is located at 475 Bethnal Green Road, E2 9QH

Monday-Friday: 8am-5pm

Weekends: 9am-5pm

Words and Images by Tim Copeland