About half a minute from Bethnal Green underground station is a little café called Second Shot. From the outside it looks like your typical East London coffee shop, chock-a-block with twenty-somethings working away on their laptops, sipping from their mugs and scoffing up pastries. But beneath the surface, this café has a secret: it only employs homeless people.
Its founder, Julius Ibrahim, incidentally an old friend of mine from school, set up the social enterprise in 2016 after moving to London to study at UCL. After moving to Bloomsbury, where he lived for the short time he studied, he noticed that something was wrong: rough sleeping was everywhere, and little was being done to help.
While at university, he tried to set up three different social enterprises, all of which fell through. Then he dropped out, and set up Second Shot by himself. The concept is simple: Julius employs someone affected by homelessness on a three-month probationary period. If it goes well, they extend the contract for another three months, during which time Julius works to find further employment for his employee. This is the beauty of the concept – Second Shot is a stepping stone to employment, a helping hand, rather than a career.
I caught up with Julius at his café on a quiet Saturday afternoon. We talked about the café, the projects he’s involved with, and reminisced about the indie band he was a singer for back when we were in college. (There are no plans for a Compound 6 reunion tour. Sorry everyone.) During our interview he rises several times to greet customers who enter. It’s obvious there is a real community evolving around his café, which has only been open six months. In that time, though, customers have donated three hundred meals to the homeless using the café’s Pay It Forward wall. Customers come in, buy themselves a coffee, and then donate up to £4 to provide a coffee and a hot meal for a rough sleeper. They write what they have paid for on the whiteboard on the wall, and a rough sleeper can come in, claim their meal, and it’s wiped off.
But Second Shot isn’t only about helping out those in need – it’s also about breaking down the perceptions of what homelessness is. When I ask Julius if he knows what proportion of customers are homeless, he says that he doesn’t know.
‘We don’t really get that involved in their lives like that. We just try and treat them like any other customer. We don’t ask too many questions – if someone feels that they’re in need and can’t afford it, then that’s their judgement. Someone might not “look” in need, or not “look” homeless, but you never know.’
Julius thinks that our generation is more socially conscious, aware of what’s going on, and wanting to get involved – and it is overwhelmingly our generation who are his customers. He says that among his customers homelessness isn’t seen negatively. And because Second Shot is in the middle of Tower Hamlets, not only are there loads of socially conscious millennials kicking about willing to get involved, there’s also a lot of rough sleeping – in other words, people who need help.
To answer the question you’re all dying to know: the coffee and food at Second Shot is excellent. The head barista, Emilio, sources different flavours of coffee from all around the world, and only buys from places he knows give farmers a fair deal. Not only that, all of their food is sourced from other social enterprises. Their pastries, for example, are from Luminary Bakery, a company which helps disadvantaged women get back on their feet.
After we finish talking, I order myself a coffee and salted caramel brownie (what else?), and sit down to relax by the window, watching people come and go. A few times, someone asks for something from the Pay It Forward wall – a coffee, a sandwich or a hot meal. More often than not, a customer contributes a few pounds forward and leaves their note on the whiteboard. As I leave and embark on the short journey to Bethnal Green station, I can’t help but think how much better London would be if more businesses were as socially conscious as Second Shot is. Julius’ business is a reminder that there are a lot of people out there in need of support, and that our generation is willing enough, and smart enough, to help them.
Photo credits: Kieran Woodham/Instagram: @kieranwoodham