‘Free meals for the homeless’ cafe in London’s East End at risk as donations dry up | Cost of living crisis

The founder of a London social enterprise that provides free meals to refugees and the homeless has said they are at risk of closure as the cost of living crisis has 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 the cafe’s trade in recent weeks, with returns so low that one day she thought the tills were broken.

“Last Thursday at 3pm I had to ask my manager if the POS system was broken because the sale was £57,” Rogers said. “We’ve been open since 10am. Before the pandemic it would have been £300-400 at that time of day.”

While sales of the cafe were low after the closure, 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 in London.

“Once we got past Omicron, sales grew an average of 17.5% month over month,” Rogers said. “But April was 5% lower than March and May seems 15% lower than April. This feels like a direct impact of the cost of living that people face.

“We have a fantastic menu, our space is welcoming, our team is working hard, but when 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’ve got four weeks to turn it around’: The Canvas has launched a last-ditch crowdfunding campaign with a goal of £100,000. Photo: Jo Thorne

Trade in the café used to be brisk with additional income from the rental of the event space. Customers would “pay it in advance” by adding the cost of a drink, snack or hot meal to their order “for someone who may not be able to afford it”, allowing the cafe to hand out free food and drinks.

However, in January the cafe gave away £1,700 worth of food and Rogers realized that, for the first time since it opened its doors in 2014, the pay it forward pot was drying up and would run out in a few weeks, forcing it to limit the amount food it dispenses.

“That was never a problem in the past,” she says. “Now we see 30% more need, but suffer 60% less trade and therefore our donations have decreased. If people don’t come in, they don’t donate at the cash register.”

The situation ties in with the experience of food banks, which report rising demand but lower donations as the rising cost of living bites. This combination makes for a “perfect storm” for charities and social enterprises, according to recent research by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF).

Nearly three in five charities were concerned about people having less money to donate, while a third were concerned about the future of their organization, according to a poll of 547 executives in April. The consumer survey found that 14% of people planned to cut back on charitable donations over the next six months to help manage their bills.

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

The Canvas has launched a last-ditch crowdfunding campaign called Save Our Seats (SOS) with a goal of £100,000. “We have four weeks to turn it around,” Rogers said. “We have to buy time because I don’t know how long it will take. I need to find a new business model for this trading environment.”

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

Jason Williamson, the lead singer of the English electronic punk duo Sleaford Mods, said the cafe helped people “directly with food and drink, but also with friendship and respect. A place like this can’t close, just when it’s going to get worse for everyone.”

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