Stephen Jardine: How sandwich charity is building houses for homeless

Josh Littlejohn, founder of Social Bite, which is organising the Sleep in the Park event in Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens (Picture: Jon Savage)
Josh Littlejohn, founder of Social Bite, which is organising the Sleep in the Park event in Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens (Picture: Jon Savage)
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Social Bite sleep-out in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens will help build homes for the homeless, writes Stephen Jardine.

If you want to find more than 8,000 kind-hearted Scots, look no further than Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh tonight.

That is the venue for a mass overnight sleep-out to raise funds to tackle homelessness in Scotland. Organised by Social Bite, it’s taking place on one of the coldest nights of the year but that is part of the

experience. I took part in the initial event last year in Charlotte Square and it was wet, cold and miserable but bearable because we all had hot showers and warm beds to look forward to the next night, unlike those who are genuinely homeless.

READ MORE: Social Bite ‘homeless housing’ prototype unveiled

It’s not about playing at living on the streets. The point is to highlight a problem and fund solutions. Last year’s event raised more than £550,000 and this year £2 million has already been raised, half the overall target.

That’s is a long way from the origins of Social Bite. When Josh Littlejohn and Alice Thompson opened the first sandwich shop in Rose Street in 2012, it was a simple social enterprise with all profits going to charity. Then came the idea of bringing homeless people behind the counter as members of staff. Add in giving away all the produce left at the end of the day and the suspended purchase scheme which allows customers to buy food for a homeless person to redeem and Social Bite had started a charity revolution.

Four more sandwich shops followed along with fundraising dinners with star guests including Leonardo di Caprio and George Clooney, but the fundamental problem remained with homeless people still on the streets.

That required a radical solution and last week this started to take shape as the first diggers moved onto a site in Granton where the Social Bite village is being built. Next year more than 20 homeless people will move into the small homes, built with funds raised at events like the sleep-out tonight.

READ MORE: Social Bite unveils plans for Scotland’s first ‘homeless village’

Celebrities including John Cleese, Rob Brydon and Amy MacDonald will all be in Edinburgh later to support the event but the real stars are the people swapping an evening in front of the fire for a groundsheet and survival bag.

In the circumstances, a wee dram would be very helpful but that won’t be happening. Alcohol is not permitted making this one of the few big events in Scotland without a booze sponsor. Given the role problem drinking plays in the stories told by many homeless people, it is a sensible choice. Instead hot chocolate and soup will be the key to a comfortable night. The food and drink sector will be out in force this evening giving their support. Seafood Scotland and Scotland Food & Drink are bringing teams of people to take part and help boost the fundraising total.

Social Bite’s ambition is to eradicate homelessness. You only have to walk through the centre of Edinburgh to see we are still a long way from that vision. But some solutions are now on the table with the funds available to make them work. More than that, we’ve connected with the reality that the homeless are just us with less luck. Thhe thousands sleeping out tonight will show, that doesn’t mean we don’t care.