“I was homeless,” a new acquaintance shared mid-sentence while having dinner at La Belle Helene last week. We were chatting about the challenges he’s faced trying to fulfill his purpose of delivering LGBTQ-focused nightlife destinations that also give back to the larger community (i.e. employing those without work) when the words just came out.
I stopped chewing the forfeited caviar I’d scraped off his deviled egg, the brininess of the privileged delicacy suddenly turning sour in my stomach.
Presumably pink-cheeked with completely unnecessary unease, I raised my gaze to meet his. I was worried my face would show too little or too much unwarranted concern. His head was held high and his eyes were stern, but his demeanor was collected, posture unbothered, and his passion for community unbending.
He gave me a chance to digest, but not long enough for me to make things awkward or fall victim to the auto-triggered, unemotional response of “I’m so sorry,” which absolutely no one wants to hear. He spoke his truth, he was proud of where he’d been, who he was and continues to be, and he certainly didn’t need my empathy.
When it comes to community challenges like houselessness, I’ve always felt wildly unequipped to properly verbalize my deep sadness, frustration, or thoughts on how to make a difference. I’m often left feeling like a child being told some version of: “If you can’t say nothin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” Or a complaining employee needing a real quick boss check: “Come to me with solutions, not problems.”
Either leaves a taste of helplessness that ends in a far more embarrassing idiomatic response: “Ignorance is bliss.” And then I (read: we) can relinquish responsibility and march forward without a sense of guilt.
But what happens if we continue to turn the other cheek? Simply put, there will soon be few places to go or cheeks to turn. Enter social revolutionaries like Change Please, a UK-born nonprofit whose mission is to “brew change” and tackle homelessness with every cup of coffee served (more on that in a minute). If my early synchronistic dinner convo was a humble pregame, the grand opening of the inaugural U.S. Change Please Training Academy and coffee shop at the Innovation Barn on Seigle Avenue was the hopeful nightcap.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Innovation Barn, it opened in September 2021 as part of an Envision Charlotte initiative that combines entrepreneurial businesses, zero-waste initiatives, and circular economy (read: a space to minimize waste and maximize the use of resources) projects. Think recycling, refurbishment, and reuse — like Sam Fleming’s aquaponics lab, for example. It would appear that Change Please Coffee makes the perfect addition!
According to MeckNC.gov, there were an estimated 3,260 individuals experiencing homelessness in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area as of Oct. 31, 2022. It doesn’t seem a staggering number when compared to the UK’s 8,239 “rough sleepers.” But when you consider respective populations — 1.2 million in Mecklenburg County versus the UK at 67.5 million, the future of homelessness, if left ignored in the Queen City, looks pretty discouraging.
This, of course, is compounded by Charlotte’s explosive growth rates, surging rent prices, cost of living increases, lack of shelter availability, dwindling public support systems, and a host of other socioeconomic factors unique to the States.
That being said, with an 85% onward employment success rate, 500 training graduates, 5,000 nights of accommodations, and millions of dollars raised to fight homelessness across eight countries, it would seem that Change Please proves a solid case study to offer a silver lining of hope in an otherwise seemingly bleak landscape.
Change Please deploys a “hand-up versus handout” recipe for disrupting the cycle of homelessness, which starts with employing unhoused individuals and giving on-the-job, expert barista training selling Change Please coffee for double the minimum wage. But that’s not where their commitment ends.
The company, which opened its first U.S. location on UNC Charlotte’s campus in 2022, understands that true change isn’t achieved in isolation; they work in tandem with — versus in friction against — the efforts of local community organizations already doing the damn thing. Through strategic implementation and partnership, they can take a multi-prong approach to deliver simultaneous and continued development of human dynamism, cultivation of a positive self-view, wraparound support services for everything from mental health to childcare, secure housing, and onward/ongoing future employment.
The challenge ahead for pioneers like those at Change Please won’t be an easy one, as much of the road has yet to be paved in Charlotte, but one fact remains the same: If we continue to view homelessness as a “them” problem versus a collective “us” problem, the “problem” of home security will never be addressed.
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