Monday 9 December 2019

'If you don't ask, you don't get': The starry appeal of the Big Sleep Out

Social entrepreneur Josh Littlejohn has Hollywood stars backing his upcoming 'sleep out' event in cities across the world. He tells Tanya Sweeney how he got started

Advice: Josh Littlejohn at Trinity College, the location for the Dublin Sleep Out on December 7. Photo by Frank Mc Grath
Advice: Josh Littlejohn at Trinity College, the location for the Dublin Sleep Out on December 7. Photo by Frank Mc Grath

Tanya Sweeney

With so many charities clamouring in the great donations gold rush, it certainly helps to get a little star power behind your cause. Josh Littlejohn wasn't expecting much when he fired off a few letters to celebrities in the hopes that they might lend their megawatt support to his Edinburgh-based ventures. The first of them is the Social Bite café, a social enterprise that employs and feeds homeless people; the second is the Big Sleep Out, an annual event which takes place worldwide and invites participants to sleep outdoors in 52 cities worldwide, including Dublin and Belfast on December 7.

Littlejohn, who co-founded Social Bite with Alice Thompson, could scarcely have imagined that George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry would descend on Social Bite.

How did it all come to pass? Littlejohn says it's simple enough: if you don't ask, you don't get.

"We wrote a letter to George Clooney through a charity he co-founded and asked him to be a speaker at our dinner," recalls Littlejohn, who recently landed in Dublin to speak at the Good Summit at Trinity College, Dublin. "We told him we did this little café where we helped the homeless, and could he come in, and he did, amazingly. Edinburgh isn't too used to celebrities like this so the city ground to a halt. We were on the front page of every national newspaper in the UK a day later. It was a big turning point for us, and we've been able to harness it and develop more ambitious things."

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As for Harry and Meghan: "It was crazy to get that email," he smiles.

For the inaugural Big Sleep Out Event in 2017, comedian Rob Brydon, Bob Geldof and singer Amy McDonald slept overnight on Edinburgh Prince's Street with 8,000 others; a year later, Irvine Welsh read a bedtime story to the event's fundraisers (this year, Will Smith is doing bedtime story duties in New York, while Helen Mirren will assume similar duties in London).

Live 8

Perhaps not surprisingly, a visit to Live 8 in 2005 as a teen, a concert held in Hyde Park in London featuring U2, Coldplay, REM, Brad Pitt, Madonna and Pink Floyd proved a formative experience for Littlejohn. He met the film director Richard Curtis, one of the brains behind the event, recently. "I told him that what he did sort of shaped my life," he notes.

And yet Social Bite café happened almost entirely by accident. After Littlejohn studied politics and economics, he originally had a view to working as a government economist. Failing the interview process soon put paid to that plan. Deciding on a move into social enterprise, he and Thompson juggled an events company with the opening of a small café.

"Originally, the idea had nothing to do with homelessness," he adds. "The shop just opened and we were completely clueless and naïve, just serving sandwiches and coffee. This young man came in one day, selling the Big Issue and plucked up the courage to ask if he could have a job. It seemed like a nice thing to do." The man in question worked hard, and managed to turn his life around. When another job came up in the café, Littlejohn and Thompson decided on a similar tack.

"As we got more engaged, we introduced a Pay It Forward system, which encouraged customers to buy an extra meal, which would be given to someone in need of it."

He is hugely engaged in the broader political, structural world of homelessness, but by his own admission, Littlejohn was "completely naïve" about the nuances of the homeless crisis in Edinburgh at Social Bite's inception eight years ago.

"As we started to employ people, we started to ask them their stories," he recalls. "[People] have preconceived ideas that some people have ended up in a situation of homelessness because they've made bad decisions or became addicted to drink or drugs. But everyone we asked told us the same stories, ones with very similar parallels - something to the effect of having suffered very traumatic abuse as a child, or where they grew up in the care system and then got let down by that system and became homeless at 16, 17 or 18. It soon became clear to me that homelessness was a very systemic problem. Once a person has been dealt pretty difficult cards, they've not been given the means to overcome that."

Working on the Big Sleep Out event, too, afforded Littlejohn more insight into the lived experience of many homeless people.

"The first year we did it, the temperature dropped to minus six," he remembers. "It's not the end of the world - you go home, you get showered, and you get changed. Suddenly it hits you: 'that was pretty tough for one night'. You couldn't imagine doing it for the second, third or fourth night. Yet some people are in that situation for up to two years.

"It's easy to understand, in this precarious or scary scenario, how your mental health would deteriorate, or you would turn to drugs or alcohol to escape from a desperate situation," he adds. "Your confidence becomes shattered and you become increasingly removed from that employment market.

"It's our fault, really, for trapping them in such a stigmatised situation where it becomes increasingly difficult. I think the thing we found when we started offering jobs was like, as with any of us, they just want a chance to thrive. We're all pretty similar at the end of the day. It's very easy to view a person in a snapshot of the life they're currently in, but if you trace it back, you find this person was dealt a drastically different hand in life."

Littlejohn has become friends with many of his former employees, and in the beginning, he and Alice would invite employees to live with them in their one-bedroomed flat.

"One guy, Sonny, springs to mind," he says. "He was the fourth person we took on, and when we met him, he was begging on the street and had a heroin addiction problem. He came into the shop for a free sandwich and asked for a job. He was able to get clean, get a house, and worked full time with us. Now, he is a tour guide in Edinburgh. But that's just one story of many."

That's not to say that running Social Bite doesn't come with its own set of challenges.

"Obviously, a lot of these guys have never had a job before and sometimes it can be a long and rehabilitative process," explains Littlejohn. "You have to get them used to responsibility and turning up on time. There are practical challenges, too, like not having a bank account, or identification to open one. It's difficult if they don't have a place to call home. The one thing we learned on the employment side is that you need to pair employment with ongoing support so you can meet any challenge and help them deal if their living situation falls through.

Costly process

"You have to support people alongside giving them employment, and it's quite a costly process, but it's amazing how, once you do that, they can thrive in the same way any of us can," notes Littlejohn. Much like in Ireland, he observes that Scotland had a sizeable homeless population living in hostels and B&Bs, often paid for by local authorities.

"[In Scotland] the council is spending millions and people who privately run these B&Bs are becoming millionaires on the back of it."

Frustrated, Littlejohn contacted the local authorities in Edinburgh and asked for a patch of land currently not in use. After raising funds, he created The Social Bite Village in Edinburgh: a cluster of 11 eco-friendly wooden houses that sit on an acre and a half of vacant council wasteland. Each has a living space, kitchen, compact bathroom, bed and wardrobe. He is also working on Housing First, an initiative to get 800 rough sleepers into mainstream permanent housing. Coupled with five Social Bite cafés across Scotland, a restaurant, Home by Maison Bleue, Littlejohn is certainly making good on his mission to eradicate homelessness in Scotland. In 2017, he picked up an MBE for his charitable work.

Littlejohn notes that housing people first and tackling mental health or addiction challenges after that results in more sustainable tenancy rates. "Even if people have lived for 20 years on the streets, when they are trusted with a house, coupled with the support, it proves to be remarkably successful," Littlejohn observes.

And given the way his endeavours have succeeded almost accidentally, he is reluctant to offer advice to anyone thinking of starting up a similar venture in Ireland.

"We hadn't a clue how to run a sandwich shop, genuinely," he reaffirms. "Everything has been one tiny footstep after the next. My advice, if you want to do something like that, is that you just have to get started. You can plan to the nth degree, but nothing will happen unless you dive right in. After that, you just get amazed with the little miracles that happen along the way."

 

The Big Sleep Out 2019 takes place at Trinity College Dublin and Stormont Castle, Belfast, on December 7. See Bigsleepout.com

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