| Gilles Quillot | Décembre 2020 |


People become homeless for lots of different reasons – social causes, poverty and unemployment, and life events. Leaving care, leaving prison, leaving the armed services with no home to go to, escaping a violent relationship for many homeless women… so many reasons to lose shelter.

Homelessness is physically and emotionally devastating, and the way out of it requires a lot of patience and determination, and many times that extra providential help.

I recently met Charlie, the manager of Crisis Café on 64 Commercial Street E1 6LT, near Old Spitalfields Market. This café is not only a place where you can drink the best coffee in town but it’s also a café with a difference.


Crisis Cafe


Charlie, what is Café crisis?

The café has been on commercial street for 15 years and the mission has always been to end homelessness.

We first encourage the local community to understand what homelessness is by allowing the people to come in and enjoy our delicious food and drinks.

We also allow them to support our members who would require crisis services by supporting our programme.  We offer employability skills, training to our members like barista or kitchen skills. We also support people through an emotional journey as well as passing on technical skills.


How did you come to join this program?

I personally first heard of Crisis Café from the head chef Shelley Squire. He was a head chef in a gastro-pub and I was returning from south-east Asia where I had been volunteering in a project for young Burmese children. I had worked all my life within the hospitality industry and I had good front of house knowledge. I had just started working in the charitable sector and I was happy to carry on. In the past I have volunteered for the Red Cross, and many other smaller projects, and I spent two years on the Tai, on the Burmese border, working on a project supporting young stateless children from Myanmar.


How do you recruit the members?

Each crisis member is paired with a crisis mentor. The individual needs of each members are evaluated. If somebody has low confidence and low self-esteem due to a long time out of the mainstream society because of homelessness or because of some time spent in prison, the mentor might refer that person to the café to be able to regain those skills. If somebody needs employability skills or sometimes just a refresher of hospitality skills, the caseworker can decide to send this member to the café. About 30% of our referrals are coming from another smaller organisation that we work with. Smaller but not less powerful. It’s called SwitchBack. An association that help young men to find a way out of the justice system and build a stable and rewarding life.


How many people are training in your coffee shop today?

In normal circumstances (without a pandemic), the training program can accommodate 15 people at any one time. Each trainee will work 16 hours a week, this means people can still claim benefit while learning new skills. We can accommodate 2 trainees in the kitchen and 3 front-of-house at any one time, managed by the head-chef and the trainee sous-chef, together with the manager. Last year we supported a total of 112 people. A lot of these went straight into employment. Even if, with the current situation, I am very worried that some people may have lost their jobs.

At the time of the lock down in March, we had nine trainees in the café. We had to suspend the training program, and haven’t been able to invite them back. However, we manage to carry on the training with online courses. We hope they will be able to complete the program and come back physically in the café from January.



You serve and excellent coffee that is ethically sourced. Is this of particular importance for you?

 When we were looking for a roaster, we met Kurt Stewart, a former chef that has always been interested about flavours and the origin of products. It was very important for us to find someone like him who would share the Crisis values. Dignity, inclusion and ending homelessness.

Café Volcano is based in Brixton and all producers they are working with have educational programmes and community projects to support the farmers and the growers.

From the outset, it was very important to us to promote a coffee that would have a positive social impact in this country but also in a country where the coffee would grow such as Brazil, Uganda, Ethiopia or Rwanda. We believe our community is global.



Do you think that the hospitality industry is a great opportunity for your members? and why?

When you think about happy time in your life, the best memories are related to food or smells of food. Eating chips straight out of the paper, tasting a very good wine for the first time, etc. When you think about your travels and experiences, it is often related to food. From the very beginning of time, people have been sitting down around a fire to boil water, cook, discuss and organise their communities. There is no reason why we should stop doing that.

Seeing somebody enjoying what you have made and sharing the happiness with people that helped you, really build the confidence of the members, reenforce camaraderie and team spirit. It’s a type of social inclusion that members have missed before coming to the café.

Members can come from all over the world and English is not necessarily their first language. Seeing somebody sharing their culture with the other members and presenting one of their national dishes with a smile on their face, is one of my preferred exercise during the year. I can’t think about any other industry that can give that sense of belonging.


When I came in, you showed me a wall full of pictures, can you please tell me what it means and what this wall represents to you?

On the first day of their training, with their permission, we take each person’s photograph and put it on a wall with the other trainees and the volunteers, staff, as member of the team. On their last day we take the picture off the team wall and pin it onto the wall of joy. It symbolizes that they are moving on but staying within the café family.

Also, I want to expose to our customers that when they choose to come and eat in our café, they become part of something bigger. It’s not about profit but more about a society where everybody has a place.

I want to make sure that every member understands that no matter how long they stay with us, their work in the café is important to us and greatly appreciated.

I just hope that they understand that this wall represents positivity and our success.

I said earlier that we have seen 112 members, but they are not numbers. They are people and, on that wall, you can see their faces. It’s a reminder that these people came in with a complicated history but hopefully will have a bright future.


I can feel that you are very proud of this wall.

The café is just under the headquarters of Crisis. Staff working in the office, for the communication department or fundraising department, love to come down and have a drink and look at that wall. This is why they are working so hard, and some time they don’t get to see the result of their hard work. So, this wall is a constant reminder of the direct impact of their job on these people’s lives.


Christmas is approaching fast, do you have any particular ways to cover this period at the café?

We would usually do a big Christmas lunch for 450 of our members and staff. A lot of people volunteering, and this is my preferred part of the year, but sadly, it won’t be possible this year.

We would also open some big Christmas centre providing meals and shelter, showers, barbers and activities from the 23rd of December all the way through boxing day. But again, this will not happen this year.

So, we had to think this through and this year we will provide temporary accommodation for the people who do not have anywhere to stay and we will visit those who already are in temporary accommodation and provide them with food and a special Christmas package and a presentation of the different Crisis services.


Any special menus for Christmas?

We are so unsure about the Christmas period, but I can confirm that we will definitely help some other association with some surplus of seasonal products that we always have during this period.


Nobody should be alone for Christmas, what is the best way to help?

Nobody should be alone for Christmas is a big campaign from Crisis and we believe that the cost is at £28.22. We provide the meal, special Christmas treat, a supporter, as well as having an introduction to all year-round services provided by crisis. We understand that Christmas is a very difficult time to be homeless and we use this particular time to introduce them to all year long crisis services and hopefully ending their homelessness by next Christmas.

There is nothing worse than the sense of invisibility.

It is absolutely devastating for people’s emotional health. So, if you can stop for a minute, look at them in the eye and ask them if there is anything that they need. It will do better that you can possibly imagine.


Thank you Charlie.
Make a donation: www.crisis.org.uk


Gilles Quillot