Interview: Josh Littlejohn

Josh Littlejohn at the new Social Bite village, Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Josh Littlejohn at the new Social Bite village, Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The Social Bite entrepreneur opens a village and launches this year’s Sleep in the Park

Josh Littlejohn stands framed in the doorway of one of the 11 wooden houses of The Social Bite Village in Edinburgh, on the threshold of another chapter in the story of the social entrepreneur’s bid to end homelessness in Scotland.

Social Bite's nation-wide Sleep in the Park aims to see 12,000 sleeping out overnight on Saturday December 8 to help eradicate homelessness in Scotland

Social Bite's nation-wide Sleep in the Park aims to see 12,000 sleeping out overnight on Saturday December 8 to help eradicate homelessness in Scotland

Energy efficient and eco-friendly, the NestHouses sit on an acre and a half of vacant council wasteland in Granton overlooking the Firth of Forth. Snug and cosy, painted white, blue, grey and russet, with grey pitched roofs and surrounded by newly-planted shrubs and flowers, each resembles a child’s drawing of a home.

“Come in, come in, have a look, we’re really pleased with them,” he says, welcoming us into a living space with a kitchen against the back wall, seating area in front of the window, and a compact bathroom behind a sliding door. At either end of the house there’s a bedroom with a bed and wardrobe. With the paint just dry, the kitchens and bathrooms spotless, bright patchwork quilts on the beds, they’re ready and waiting for the first of the 22 occupants to step over the welcome mats and settle into their new homes.

Littlejohn is the social entrepreneur who started small with a sandwich shop in Edinburgh that gave profits to charity. Now there are five Social Bites and a restaurant, Home by Maison Bleue, with a workforce of 100 (a quarter former homeless), feeding 150 rough sleepers a day with their Pay It Forward customer donation scheme. He’s the man who attracted royalty, both Hollywood – Clooney, Clinton, DiCaprio – and Holyrood – Charles and Camilla, Harry and Meghan; he’s creator of the mass sleepovers, and now there’s The Social Bite Village, a tangible result of his dream to eradicate homelessness in Scotland.

Of course with more than 11,000 homeless in the country, 11 homes is a drop in the ocean but The Village, run in partnership with Cyrenians, with the aim of helping the occupants into mainstream housing after 12-18 months, is only part of Social Bite’s plans. Using £4m raised at last year’s Sleep in the Park, and money from the Scottish Government, Social Bite is working on Housing First, along with the Wheatley Group, Edindex and Corra Housing – an initiative to get 800 rough sleepers off Scottish streets and into mainstream permanent housing in five cities over the next 18 months. Crucially, it includes wraparound support to help people with complex needs stay in those homes.

George Clooney visits the Social Bite sandwich shop in Rose Street. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

George Clooney visits the Social Bite sandwich shop in Rose Street. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

“If we all put our heads together, there’s no reason why we can’t eradicate homelessness in Scotland within five years,” says Littlejohn. “But it can’t be done by any charity alone. The government has to be leading the way and with its announcement it will put £21m into Housing First, it’s doing that.”

For Littlejohn the initiative is a sea change in dealing with homelessness in Scotland.

“We will see significant change and people walking down our streets will see that. In August, 44 people will move into tenancies, in September another 44, the same in October and on for 18 months until 800 are in homes.“

Quietly spoken and unassuming, divested of the Beatles parka that has seen him through the sub-zero temperature sleep-outs, today the 31-year-old is dressed down in faded denim shirt, jeans and trainers. Someone brings him a coffee in a mug bearing the message “I Made The Village” and he sips it as he shows us around, speaking to staff, visiting council officials and the tradesmen putting finishing touches to the homes largely paid for by Social Bite’s first CEO Sleep Out in 2016.

Josh Littlejohn in one of the eco-friendly houses at the new Social Bite village in Granton, Edinburgh.  Picture: Ian Rutherford

Josh Littlejohn in one of the eco-friendly houses at the new Social Bite village in Granton, Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Rutherford

“This cost £750,000, but it would probably have been double if it wasn’t for all those companies donating things,” he gestures at the board outside of the community hub, plastered with the logos of the companies keen to be involved.

Today Littlejohn is talking about the next Sleep in the Park and like everything he touches, it’s grown exponentially. Last year saw 8,000 people including Rob Brydon, Bob Geldof and Amy Macdonald overnighting in Edinburgh’s Princes Street. This year it’ll be nationwide: 12,000 sleeping out in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee, with musicians KT Tunstall and Amy Macdonald helicoptered around each event, and a bedtime story from Irvine Welsh.

Slightly uncomfortable at having his picture taken, Littlejohn is nevertheless endlessly obliging for the photographer, perching on tree stumps and in doorways, varying his pose. “This is the one time I want to be in the papers,” he says, “launching Sleep in the Park, talking about Housing First. I’m keen to issue a call to action. It’s daunting to sleep out in the cold in November, but if we get 12,000 across the four cities, a lot of people will know someone doing it, and sponsor them if they can’t do it themselves.

“There’s a direct link to where the money is raised and helping people locally so with almost 800 flats pledged – 275 each in Edinburgh and Glasgow, 100 in Dundee and 100 in Aberdeen – mainly housing association and council, people will see a difference as they walk around their streets. And the money raised will fund support and sustain people in that housing.”

Sleepers bed down for the night in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, during last year's Sleep in the Park

Sleepers bed down for the night in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, during last year's Sleep in the Park

The way Littlejohn tells it there was never a grand plan that he followed, he’s always taken one step at a time.

“Seven years ago I would have thought, a big sleep out, a village, I’d never be able to do that. But each time you get a bit more confident in your own ability and your team’s ability and the support network. So your brain automatically processes what’s possible then an idea will just pop into your head, when the time is right, and you can just make that happen. For me that’s never once let me down, never once crashed and burned… maybe it will one day.”

Raised near Bridge of Allan, the son of successful restaurant owners Simon and Heather Littlejohn, Josh and his brother grew up in a comfortable setting. “Now I’m particularly aware of how supportive my upbringing was,” he says. Socially aware, he and his brother went to 
Live 8 and marched over poverty in Africa, and Littlejohn studied politics and economics at Edinburgh University.

“I just studied to pass exams and it was a big drinking culture, lying in bed till lunchtime and that was more or less life for five years. Then in fourth year I started this wee events company and had to negotiate deals and a little switch flipped. Suddenly I wanted to get out of bed in the morning and was motivated, engaged, it was like an addiction began, the lethargy was replaced by a real energy.”

A charity fashion show, then a Christmas fair, ski and snowboard shows worked well, and initially Littlejohn followed the standard entrepreneurial model, where as he puts it, “To be a success equals making as much money as you can. I’d never heard of an alternative way. Then one day I read a book by Professor Muhammad Yunus that quite simply changed my life.”

Yunus is the Bangladeshi banker and Nobel Peace Prize winner who developed the concept of micro-lending to the poor, with the profits ploughed back in for the greater good.

Josh Littlejohn in the community hub at the Social Bite village. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Josh Littlejohn in the community hub at the Social Bite village. Picture: Ian Rutherford

“I was running the events company and Alice [Thompson, his former partner who still works for Social Bite] and I used to go out for Starbucks and a Pret sandwich. We had the idea that if we started a sandwich shop, customers might be more loyal if it had a social mission.”

The pair went to visit Yunus and on return set up the first Social Bite cafe in 2012.

“Yunus sparked Social Bite, everything really,” says Littlejohn. “This idea you could set up a business and have a social objective or aspiration. I already had this real passion for entrepreneurship and the process of having an idea and plotting away and seeing it become real, then when I read his book I realised it could have a social mission.

“Social Bite wasn’t initially to do with homelessness. Originally the idea was to make a profit, then we chose three charities to give the profit to, and one was Shelter in Scotland. A guy who sold the Big Issue on the corner came in and asked for a job and it worked out well, then his brother came and another Big Issue seller, so it happened almost by accident. Then we introduced the Pay it Forward thing and met lots of homeless people and got an understanding of the root causes, how it started from childhood, routinely in the care system or they were abused as a kid, and at 16 became homeless. And you realise you’ve got such a stereotypical perception that people made bad decisions and became addicts, but these are people that just got dealt the worst cards you can imagine and society, when they reached 16, just turned its back. So we got more engaged from there, started to think about hostels and B&Bs, couldn’t believe how much they spent on it, so we needed to raise money to do something different and we did the CEO sleep-out. That was a good fundraising model so we did something bigger, invited more people, then there’s the next thing... we didn’t say in six years we could do all this, it was just one little footstep after the next.”

With Social Bite profits destined for charity, rather than Littlejohn’s own bank account, in the beginning he took home less than the average UK wage of £27,000.

“I’ve had a pay rise since then,” he says, “but we’ve got a rule that the person at the top – and some people are paid higher than me – can never earn more than seven times the person at the bottom. I think it’s important to have that level of transparency because there’s nothing worse than realising that a charity CEO earns silly money. That undermines the integrity of an organisation.”

Along the way Littlejohn has also picked up an MBE, which he collected from the Queen last summer when he briefly entertained the idea of asking her if she’d join the sleepover. Accepting an honour was something he thought carefully about.

“I think the MBE is good in terms of it opens doors. The challenging thing with it – and it was the same when Harry and Meghan came to visit Social Bite – is it’s definitely divisive. Half the people say that’s amazing, half say I can’t believe you’re cuddling up with the establishment. My own perspective, and this was true for the Sleep Out event, is that it’s a broad church, a coalition of people from all walks of life. At the Sleep Out we have everyone we think could be blamed for societal ills, the chief execs of three of the largest banking institutions, RBS, Clydesdale and Virgin Money, chief execs across the private sector, politicians, religious groups, so it’s inclusive.”

As Social Bite’s scope and influence has grown and developed, so has Littlejohn’s approach to effecting change.

“In the early days Alice and I had a one-bedroomed flat and had homeless people living with us, friends and colleagues and we felt a strong sense of personal responsibility, but these days I don’t think about it like that. We’re more engaged in the broader political, structural world of it all.

“It’s not about just saying to government, you’re doing a rubbish job, our approach is we are privileged as a result of the funds we’ve raised to proactively fund programmes which by their nature are catalytic. Like Housing First, with that we get 800 off the streets and also to significantly alter the structural response at a political level.”

What he’s talking about is the decision not to spend £20m on a homeless hostel in Glasgow but to put money into Housing First instead, helping people into homes.

“It’s like, bloody hell, I can’t actually believe we’re in a position now where we’re helping to influence such massive structural change. I’m hopeful we can continue to take that approach and use programmes to demonstrate success, use them as a mechanism to lobby for structural change.”

OK, it’s time to talk celebrity and find out who was Littlejohn’s favourite among Social Bite’s starry guests.

“Clooney was by far the coolest one,” he says. “It was just surreal and the media attention was incredible, it put us on a new level. But also he was just a brilliant guy, down to earth, funny, gracious, generous with his time.”

And what about those who are immune to the likes of Clooney’s charms and think their fee might have been better ploughed into providing a hot drink and a meal at Social Bite?

“Because they came to our event, we’d always raise a substantial additional amount that would cover it, and we’d go for a celebrity with a particular charity so the fee was a donation to that. We made a donation to the charity Clooney is associated with in the Sudan, and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation works on climate change, so we were proud to do that.”

We move into the light-filled Village community hub with its foosball table and massive dining table, and as Littlejohn sits back on a comfy sofa and takes a sip of his coffee, his sleeve rides up and reveals a tattoo.

“It says ‘There is no them and us – there is only us’,” he says. It’s something of a personal mantra, and one of three inkings he returned from Thailand with 18 months ago. Another is a tree of life, and there’s a design etched on his back with a bamboo stick.

“I went after the Sleep Out, took some time off because I had been work obsessed for so long, all those years, and just wanted to take my mind out and focus on something else. So I did this martial arts thing for a few weeks, and came back with three tattoos. Which my mum hates.” He laughs.

These days he lives in the north of the city and is in a relationship with someone who doesn’t work in Social Bite. “It’s probably better that way, not mixing it with work, though Alice and I still work together, she’s still very much inv olved and we are such good friends. We went through a lot and it’s the most amicable split ever, and we’ve got this thing in common, Social Bite.”

As Littlejohn looks out of the window, down over the slope of The Village to the Firth of Forth, he considers how his journey and achievements have changed him.

“I’m definitely more confident, more emboldened. It was all about having an idea, working really hard, seeing it become real. From a wee fashion show, to the Business Awards and how could I get Bill Clinton to come, then things like The Village, or the Sleep Out, that sight of 8,000 people all there... each time that process has come true, it’s emboldening, and you think ‘we could make some major inroads into homelessness next year…’ Why not?”

Social Bite 2018 Sleep in the Park, Saturday 8 December, sleepinthepark.co.uk, social-bite.co.uk