Charity can do more with empty shops

London’s E1 is a contradictory place, and the streets around the Crisis Skylight cafe make a mixed-up neighbourhood. There’s the gentrified Spitalfields, where rusty old metal chairs and battered suits fetch top dollar, alongside the gloriously unreconstructed Petticoat Lane. And there’s Toynbee Hall, a Victorian settlement house which has pioneered new ways of working with communities since it was founded. So it’s the perfect neighbourhood for Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, and their Skylight Cafe project.

The area moves from fast food takeaways and greasy spoons to more hipster hangouts, and the Skylight Cafe is in the middle of the market, with some bare brick, scattered furniture and a dash of people working on laptops. There’s a warm smile when you walk in, and prompt, polite service. There’s also a pot of decent tea for a quid which is rare in London.

But, without shouting about it, the cafe is about something much more interesting. It’s a training centre, with a clear, well-trodden path to take people back to work and it’s been doing that since 2004. There are around a dozen trainees running the cafe, working 2-3 shifts a week, and each trainee is with the cafe for four months. Every month, at least two trainees leave the cafe to go back to work. They’re helped by a job coach, working alongside them during their four month training.

The Skylight Cafe is a social enterprise, and is about to become more sustainable as external catering contracts pick up and increase the cafe’s income – and it’s a model Crisis have already replicated in Oxford and Newcastle.

As our old town centres become less useful to big business, there’s been a lot of huff and puff about the unstoppable rise of the charity shop. That’s only because charities have stuck to a tried, tested and often tatty model. Charity shops are a pale imitation of real shops, and often add little to the life of towns. The Skylight Cafe shows another way for charities to use the high street; not just for fundraising, but to pursue their real aims and change people’s lives.

This is one of an occasional series of posts looking at different ways the high street is being used. It’s part of a forthcoming project for V Inspired and the Retail Trust. It originally appeared on and was rewritten for a blog on The Independent.

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