Hunger & Homelessness: Urban Answers to Urban Problems

Hunger and homelessness are urban problems being tackled in interesting ways in cities on both sides of the Atlantic.

Social Bite, Glasgow. (Photo by Leogoable via Trip Advisor;geo=186534&detail=6753006)

Social Bite, Glasgow. (Photo by Leogoable via Trip Advisor)

In Edinburgh, for example, “social entrepreneurs” Josh Littlejohn and Alice Thomson have launched Social Bite, a chain of soup and sandwich shops where customers can pay “for a coffee or a sandwich in advance for a homeless person to claim.” According to The Scots Magazine, the chain now boasts two outlets in Edinburgh, two in Glasgow and one in Aberdeen and Littlejohn has plans for further expansion.

Although they had planned to give their profits to charity, Littlejohn and Thomson changed tack when Pete, a friend who sold The Big Issue outside the cafe, asked for a job. Littlejohn took him on and soon others who had formerly begged on the streets came on board so that, at present, 1/4 of the workers in the cafes are former street people. Littlejohn admits that employing them has “opened his eyes.”

“I had a preconceived notion that maybe people had made bad decisions,” he told The Scots Magazine. “What I discovered was that almost all of them got dealt incredibly bad cards from an early age” and  “almost all grew up in the care system.”

Those who have been hired are often amazed at the turn their lives have taken now that they are employed. One young woman talks of how holding down a job at Social Bite makes her “feel like a normal person” who lives “a normal life with a normal routine and no longer finds people looking through her rather than at her.”

Nobody will get rich from their association with Social Bite, says Littlejohn. “Staff are paid and costs are covered but every penny of profit goes to tackling social problems.”

One of those problems, not surprisingly, is homelessness.


Tiny houses

Josh Littlejohn in front of NestHouse (Photo via Youtube

Josh Littlejohn in front of NestHouse (Photo via Youtube)

This summer, the first residents of The Social Bite village will move into new digs rather than spending nights in hostels for which the local council charges £47 (CAD$82) per night, providing the homeless person with a “bedroom and a kettle” and setting a curfew that means each person must be out of the hostel by 10 a.m. and can’t return until 6 p.m. As a result of the rules, these people spend most of the day begging on the street. Littlejohn was very aware of the isolation imposed on the homeless as well as the long list of those looking for permanent housing, but he also knew his project could save governments money in the long run. He convinced the Edinburgh Council to donate land on which to build 10 homes that will house 20 people for 12 months while they receive the support necessary to find employment and permanent homes.

Making his dream a reality was no walk in the park. Littlejohn’s first hurdle was finding plans for a house that could be built for £30,000 (CAD$50,000) and was mobile in case the council received a future offer for the land which couldn’t be refused. Tiny House Scotland solved that dilemma, but Littlejohn was faced with raising £500,000 (CAD$800,000) to fund the venture, and so he appealed to local chief executives to participate in a sleep-out in December, as well as approaching Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney and Bill Clinton for financial support which was forthcoming from all three. In fact, contacting Bill Clinton, Littlejohn says, was as easy as filling in the contact form on Clinton’s website.

Littlejohn’s ambitious plan for the next five years is to bring together the private sector and charities in an effort to end homelessness in Scotland. “It’s not the size of the village that counts but the model that it creates,” he says, given that it offers housing and an address as these people work to improve their lives, “hopefully moving on and making way for 20 others in a similar state of homelessness.”

In Scotland, the homeless must register with their local councils to receive assistance. Shelter Scotland, a charity focused on homelessness and bad housing, says that 34,662 such applications were filed in 2015/2016, down significantly from the peak of 60,662 in 2005/2006. The trend has been steadily downward since 2010, “due,” the organization says, “to the renewed preventative approach adopted by local authorities in the form of housing options, rather than a change in the underlying drivers of homelessness.”


Hungry in Toronto

Second Harvest volunteer. (Photo via Second Harvest

Second Harvest volunteer. (Photo via Second Harvest)

Of course, it’s not only in Scotland that hunger and homelessness are being tackled by various groups and individuals.

Thirty-two years ago in Toronto, Ina Andre and Joan Clayton, aware of the large number of people going hungry in one of the most successful cities in one of the richest countries in the world, decided to do something about it.

The two women, as Joshua Ostoff reported in The Huffington Post in September 2016, simply drove around the city in a couple of hatchbacks asking restaurants and grocery stores to donate excess fresh food. They found “seven restaurants willing to give and seven social service agencies eager to take” and thus was born Second Harvest.

Cori MacPhee, communications director for the group, told Ostoff that food headed to the landfill because it was mislabeled or close to its due date was instead delivered to places such as the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC) where, according to the chef Tessa White, it was made into delicious meals. As one of the Second Harvest drivers said, “No waste, no hunger.”

Granted, the women who started Second Harvest did not think their organization would be needed indefinitely. Unfortunately, 30 years later, the need has only grown: a 2013 study found that one in eight Canadian families faced some level of food insecurity. On the other hand, a 2014 report found that Canadians in general waste an estimated $31 billion worth of food each year. Second Harvest now has nine trucks on the road and in 2015 delivered 8.2 million pounds of food to 220 service agencies, thereby providing 22,000 free meals per day. Tessa White of PARC says they receive 95% of the food they require from Second Harvest and judging from the images in the video accompanying Ostoff’s story, the meals they provide are nutritious and delicious.

Second Harvest is filling a tremendous community need that might be solved if everyone were given an annual income, but one can’t but be humbled by what amazing things can be accomplished when a Josh Littlejohn in Edinburgh, an Ina Andre and a Joan Clayton in Toronto, or anyone else willing to step up to the plate (no pun intended) can manage with just the desire and the drive to make things happen.


Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.



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