Poorest of the pour
When it comes to donated coffee, plenty give, but few take
An online campaign encouraging customers to prepay for drinks for the needy swept the world’s social networks earlier this year. But the movement, inspired by an Italian tradition, has at times failed to reach its intended recipients, and now a cafe in Manchester, England, has had to look for alternative solutions.
The idea began more than 100 years ago in Naples, Italy, where it is known as caffè sospeso. Under the practice, some coffee shops allow patrons who are feeling generous to prepay for hot drinks, which someone who is homeless or broke can later claim. The tradition, which was normally confined to the festive season, allowed a quiet act of generosity in which donors and recipients did not meet and there was no need to show gratitude.
Since the financial crisis pushed up unemployment and poverty levels, the custom has re-emerged in Naples and spread across the world, in part thanks to an unattributed email that went viral early this year. For those who want to boast of their own philanthropy, there are suspended coffee hashtags on Twitter and Instagram.
But one participating cafe, Manchester’s Nexus Art Cafe, found few people in the target group seemed to know about it. The coffee shop, located in the city’s Northern Quarter, had 90 paid-for drinks marked on its tally chart within a few months of starting the program. However, only a handful of people had come in to claim one.
“For a while we had signs advertising the scheme, and people kept buying them, but we just couldn’t reach the recipients — probably because a lot of this was driven by the Internet,” cafe worker Joseph Duxbury said. “We still have a little sign in the window, but we took the rest down, and since then we’ve had maybe five or six suspended drinks purchased a week. Our regulars can be very generous and pay for several at once — one teenage girl recently bought one tea and left £10 for suspended coffees.”
Seattle’s Essential Baking Co. began a suspended coffee program in May after a worker discovered the idea on Facebook. Within just a few days, Ashley Mengoni had convinced her managers at Essential to start providing suspended coffee at the shop in the Wallingford neighborhood and had cut and painted 75 wooden tokens, each one representing a $2.75 cup of coffee. People can also receive free loaves of bread.
Customers embraced the idea of buying the tokens, and the cafe sold out quickly. The company expanded the idea to its other locations.
However, demand for the tokens has yet to catch up with supply. In the Wallingford cafe, word of the free coffee has spread mostly through the Homeless in Seattle Facebook page and by word of mouth among recipients.
“Yesterday we gave away two loaves of bread,” Mengoni said. Sometimes people come in for a cup of coffee and a loaf of bread to take with them.
“It’s cool to see that one person came in, and he brought in a few of his friends,” Mengoni said.
In Manchester, word of mouth has its limits. When The Big Issue in the North asked Manchester vendor Chris if he had heard of suspended coffees, he looked completely blank. So we took him to Nexus Art Cafe for a pre-shift hot drink.
“I’ve never heard anyone talking about this — how would we know about it if it’s all on the Internet?” he said. “I think it’s a great idea, but I can imagine it being abused by some people. They may make a scene or upset people, and then it could come back at all of us. This has happened with other places in the past.
“They also definitely need signs in the windows, otherwise it could be embarrassing to go and ask for one of these drinks if they then said no.
“Also, how will they know people are homeless? It’s sometimes not easy to tell.”
Chris says regular customers sometimes offer to buy vendors a hot drink or something to eat. “It’s lovely when someone talks to you and asks you if you’d like something, but we can’t leave our [stations] when we are working,” he said. “One lady paid for food for me at a fast-food chain and gave me the receipt — she said she had arranged it with someone there — but when I went to ask for it they said they couldn’t give it to me.”
Web pages and Facebook groups sprang up to promote the initiative, and independent cafes in Grimsby, Huddersfield, Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester and Salford are among those that have signed up to provide suspended coffees.
Starbucks is among the major coffee chains to have also climbed aboard the bandwagon, announcing that it would donate its suspended coffees to the Christian charity Oasis for distribution to homeless people. Nexus Art Cafe used a similar approach — the Methodist church that owns it now gives hot drink vouchers to the homeless or vulnerable people with whom it works.
Still though, relatively few are coming in to claim their coffees. An unexpected downside the cafe has had to deal with is that some voucher recipients have also used their toilet facilities to do drugs.
Professor Cary Cooper, a psychologist based at the University of Lancaster who once spent a year working with homeless people in Los Angeles, thinks the lack of direct engagement is what will attract some donors to the idea.
“The problem is that people just don’t know how to go about connecting with a person like that in a more personal way,” he said. “They don’t have the words, and they may be worried they would get a negative reaction or that they would come across as patronizing.
“Yes, it’s perhaps a flawed idea, but I quite like that these people are thinking about people other than themselves and that it is raising awareness of the issues facing the poorest members of society.”
Amanda Croome, coordinator of the Booth Centre, which works with vulnerable adults in Manchester, thinks there are more effective ways to help those who need it.
“If the public really wants someone to have a coffee you would have thought that they could ask them and go and buy them one. If they want to make a real difference to people’s lives then a coffee really won’t change anything, and they would be better giving money to a local charity,” she said.
“I suppose it’s better than giving people money, which we know usually only gets spent on drugs or alcohol, but it’s a bit of an odd concept.
“I guess I wouldn’t want to put people off if that’s what they want to do — and it’s not going to do any great harm — but I can’t really see it catching on.”
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