Posted 11 Jun 2014
The ‘suspended coffee’ movement, which encourages cafe patrons to buy coffees and food for future customers who are in need, is gaining popularity worldwide. Kate Walton and Maria Tickle investigate the progress of the movement in Australia and meet some of its supporters.
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When you come across a homeless person asking for money on the street do you sometimes wish you could give more than just coins? Maybe a meal and a hot drink?
A grassroots charitable scheme spreading rapidly through cafes around the world allows you to do just that.
The ‘suspended coffee’ movement encourages patrons to buy two coffees, leaving one ‘in suspense’ for someone in need. It’s a new incarnation of an old trend that is thought to have started more than a century ago in the working class cafes of Naples.
It’s built the most unlikely friendships and connections; we have millionaires sitting next to people who are borderline homeless, we have responsible lawyers sitting next to people really struggling with addiction.The story goes that when a person experienced good luck they would buy two coffees, one for themselves, and one for someone in need. After the Second World War the tradition declined but since the global financial crisis of 2007/8 there’s been a resurgence and the initiative has spread to the cafes of Europe, US, Canada, South America and Australia.
Cup from Above, a cafe in the Brisbane suburb of Aspley, was one of the first Australian businesses to adopt the Italian tradition and recently extended the scheme to meals as well.
‘If they’re familiar with the system they just come in, grab a token and ask for what they like, just as though they were putting down money,’ says Adam Cocks, the cafe’s founder and a former social worker.
He says social media plays an integral role in the promotion of the suspended coffee movement.
‘On the weekend we had quite a few tokens, on Monday we got inundated with people in need of a hot drink and by Monday lunchtime we had zero on the wall. We put a call out to the community to say the rack’s empty and within 24 hours we were overloaded again.’
Cocks’ call out led to around 80 food and drink donations. Like many cafes, Cup from Above has a system where suspended coffee and food tokens can be bought at the cafe or online, which means you could donate a meal to anyone, anywhere, any time.
‘It’s built the most unlikely friendships and connections; we have millionaires sitting next to people who are borderline homeless, we have responsible lawyers sitting next to people really struggling with addiction,’ he says.
Shirley James-Sharry runs a Facebook page that promotes suspended coffee in Queensland. She says different cafes have different systems. While some use tokens, others tally the coffees on a chalkboard. She prefers the token system, as the physical act of hanging the token on the wall is part of the process of giving.
‘Some include your names, I like the anonymousness too, because it’s just that idea that someone that you don’t even know wants you to enjoy something. So there’s that real connectedness and to me it’s kindness and inclusion,’ she says.
‘I work with children with disabilities so that’s what drew me to the whole idea, knowing that people would be welcomed into cafes to feel part of the community, that was my driving force.’
Cathy is a regular at Cup From Above and says that at the moment her cleaning business is struggling.
‘This week’s a little bit hard for me,’ she says. ‘I’m going to claim a tucker token as well. There’s been weeks where I’ve been able to put something into the community, but today’s the day when I need to do a little withdrawal.’
She redeems a suspended coffee and tucker token, getting a panini to share with her children.
‘It’s not easy to ask for help when you walk around with a smile and you just want everyone to think that you are just fine and you’re not.’
James-Sharry has watched the movement grow in Australia in the past 12 months, and there are now 30 cafes with suspended coffee in Queensland. However, she says more are needed.
‘It’s always interesting about the placement of the cafes that’s always very important, because we want cafes that are in more vulnerable areas but they’re also harder to come by,’ she says.
Some, of course, have questioned how cafes decide who is and who isn’t eligible for a freebie.
‘I think the right person is the person who needs that at that time,’ James-Sharry says. ‘What I have found with every cafe that I have interacted with is that their definition of “right” is not based on judgement and that’s what this is about, it’s based on kindness.’
‘It is very important that we allow people to feel that generosity regardless of their circumstance and it’s not for us to judge.’
Cocks was a social worker for 10 years before starting this cafe, and he sees a potential for social change in the suspended coffee movement.
‘A cup of coffee tastes good, we love it, but no-one needs a cup of coffee. Everyone needs to connect and everyone needs to feel like they belong. Suspended coffee paves that way for those connections to happen,’ he says.
‘We constantly get people here, sometimes three a day, strangers getting a suspended coffee then breaking down in tears because something’s happened in their life and they’ve got no-one to talk to about it. Suspended coffee facilitates that conversation and some sort of healing for them.’
Cup from Above is a special case because it’s a social enterprise run by volunteers. Everything they do is focused on supporting those most vulnerable in their neighbourhood.
However, according to Cocks it hasn’t been smooth sailing. There was a noticeable downturn in business when they started suspended coffees, then history repeated itself.
‘On the one-year anniversary we released tucker tokens, which is the food version of suspended coffee and we saw the exact same dip again: about a 15-20 per cent drop for the few weeks directly after. Especially with the tucker tokens we saw people in even more extreme need than the suspended coffee, homeless folk, drug addicts and ex-cons.’
How does suspended coffee work in a cafe when profit is a driving factor? One cafe owner, who declined to be interviewed, said they had to downsize their involvement in the charitable coffee scheme as they felt the community of homeless people around their cafe had taken advantage of the system.
Thrive on George, however, has had a very different experience. It’s a busy inner city cafe on a noisy main road not far from Roma Street Station in Brisbane. It’s been running for six years and over the past year they have provided some 800 suspended coffees. The area has a lot of homeless people, especially at night.
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‘There’s been comments in the media that there’s been an abuse of the system and it is just not the case,’ says owner Michelle Bou-Samra.
‘Most people have a lot of pride and they don’t want to feel like they are getting a handout. They don’t want to abuse the system; they think getting a coffee’s enough and we have to sometimes nearly force them to pick some food [and] take a seat, but they are very conscious of our customers and very respectful of that.’
Bou-Samra says she talks her staff through what they need to do to navigate challenging behaviour from these customers.
‘Some of our homeless people may not be having a good day just like all of us but because there’s a prevalence of mental health [issues], alcoholism, drug abuse, their nature can change from day to day, hour to hour and they need to be aware of that and not to take it personally, try to calm them down if possible.’
According to Bou-Samra there have only been a couple of occasions where regular patrons have been offended by a homeless patron who ‘didn’t smell quite right’. But that’s not going to stop her supporting those in need in her community.
‘I think that in life you have got to give and take a little bit and as much as we love our patrons, if they are going to get upset about something as minor as that while they are standing here for a couple of minutes waiting for their coffee we can apologise, but if they decide they are not going to return because we have this service here I am not going to stop it because of that.’
‘The majority of our customers love it, embrace it; when one of our vulnerable patrons come in they see the giving in action and I think it makes their day.’