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London’s East End ‘Free Meals for the Homeless’ cafe in jeopardy as donations dry up | Cost of living crisis

The founder of a London social enterprise that gives free meals to refugees and homeless people said it was at risk of closing as the cost of living crisis led to a slump in sales and donations.

Ruth Rogers, the founder of The Canvas in London’s East End, said there had been a dramatic collapse in trade at her cafe in recent weeks, with takings so low that one day she thought her boxes were broken.

“Last Thursday at 3pm I had to ask my manager if the checkout system had broken down as sales were £57,” Rogers said. “We had been open since 10 a.m. Before the pandemic it would have been £300-400 at that time of day. »

While coffee sales were weak after the lockdown, they had started to grow again by early 2022, said Rogers of the community center near Brick Lane in Tower Hamlets, which has the highest child poverty rate of any borough from London.

“Once we got past Omicron, sales were up month-over-month an average of 17.5%,” Rogers said. “But April was down 5% from March and May looks like 15% down from April. It sounds like a direct impact of the cost of living issues that people are facing.

“We have a fantastic menu, our space is welcoming, our team works hard, but if people don’t come through the door because they feel they can’t afford it…how can a small business survive, let alone one like The Canvas?I know other places like us are already closing.

‘We have four weeks to fix it’: The Canvas has launched a final crowdfunding campaign with a target of £100,000. Photography: Jo Thorne

The café business was once thriving with additional revenue generated by renting out its event space. Customers would “pay it forward” by adding the cost of a drink, snack or hot meal to their order “for someone who might not be able to afford theirs”, allowing the cafe to distribute free food and drink.

In January, however, the cafe donated £1,700 worth of food and Rogers realized that, for the first time since opening in 2014, the term payout pot was drying up and running out within weeks, the forcing him to limit the amount of food he distributed.

“It’s never been a problem before,” she said. “Now we are seeing 30% more need, but we are experiencing 60% less trade and because of that our donations are down. If people don’t walk through the door, they don’t donate at the checkout.

The situation matches the experience of food banks, which report growing demand but declining donations as the rising cost of living bites. This combination creates a “perfect storm” for charities and social enterprises, according to a recent study by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF).

Nearly three in five charity leaders feared people would have less money to give, while a third worried about the future of their organization, according to a poll of 547 leaders in April. Its consumer survey found that 14% of people planned to cut back on their charitable giving over the next six months to help manage their bills.

High street campaigner Mary Portas, co-chair of the Better Business Act campaign, said it would be “awful” if The Canvas closed. She added: “It’s a shining example of the best ways businesses need to operate to deliver a more sustainable future.”

The Canvas has launched an ultimate crowdfunding campaign called Save Our Seats (SOS) with a target of £100,000. “We have four weeks to fix it,” Rogers said. “We have to save time because I don’t know how long it will last like this. I need to find a new business model for this business environment. »

The crisis has led to offers of help from its famous supporters, including artists Gilbert & George who live nearby. In 2019 they donated designs to create art plates to sell and fundraise and agreed to sign a limited number which are offered as “rewards” for large donations. In a statement, they said: “Gilbert & George are happy to create their magic plates to help The Canvas in their campaign to help feed the homeless.”

Jason Williamson, the lead singer of English electronic punk duo Sleaford Mods, said the cafe helps people “directly with food and drink, but also with friendship and respect. A place like this cannot close when things are about to get worse for everyone.

Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement