How your morning coffee can help end youth homelessness

Around 28,000 young Australians don’t have a safe place to sleep at night. But the team at social enterprise and Bank Australia customer Society Melbourne are changing that, by creating a hospitality training and development program as a pathway out of homelessness.

Every night, around 28,000 young Australians don’t have a safe place to sleep. While most of us are tucked up in bed, these young people – aged between 16 and 24 – are sleeping rough, couch surfing, or trying to find a way out of unsafe or unstable housing.

Melbourne-based social enterprise and Bank Australia customer Society Melbourne is working to change this. The team, headed up by co-founder and managing director Tenille Gilbert, pictured above, began operating in 2015, as a way to create a pathway for young people who are at risk of homelessness.

They did this by starting a small range of venues, acting as both training and employment spaces. Each of these enterprises – coffee carts, cafes and a food truck – plays its own unique role in the Society Melbourne ecosystem. The profits from every coffee, toastie and crepe go towards housing, education and employment, as well as building confidence and community.

Entry into the program – called home.plate – starts at two of Society Melbourne’s partner accommodation spaces: Launch Housing and Melbourne City Mission. Here, young people can to connect with social workers and think about their next steps while receiving a roof over their heads.

“If they’ve got an interest in hospitality, or have had a negative work experience, that’s when their youth worker might refer them to us,” explains Tenille.

The program starts with two weekly shifts at a coffee cart at RMIT University. “Some of them haven’t worked before, so they’re not used to being on their feet for three hours, let alone not having a break,” Tenille says. “This helps them develop some of those skills and an understanding about the workplace.”

From there, they move to Brunswick’s cosy café, where they build skills in both food and customer service. “This is where their confidence really starts to grow. There’s a great community, so participants tend to feel really welcomed and supported,” she explains.

At the busier home.two cafe at the University of Melbourne, the focus is on becoming autonomous employees. By now, they’ve honed their skills and can navigate the café’s fast-paced environment.

The final step is Open Shift, an employment-networking program. “That’s where we reach out to partner employers and say ‘Hey, we’ve got this young person who we know is amazing and would be a great employee for you’,” Tenille says. “Open Shift is about creating those opportunities for our graduates.”

Everyone moves through the six-month program at their own pace to ensure they’re learning as much as they can, without feeling like they’re being rushed.

“Many young people have had negative experiences in the education system, which has told them ‘time’s up, you have to move on now’,” Tenille says. “That’s not the model we go for.”

Around 70% of home.plate participants graduate, with 100% of graduates going on to complete further education or find jobs. Tenille credits the high rate of employment to the transition phase between graduating and finding work that’s right for them.

“Our Program Manager, who works with participants throughout the program to help them achieve their goals, stays in touch after they graduate to make sure they feel confident in taking those next steps,” Tenille says.

Society Melbourne has been with Bank Australia for three years, becoming customers due to an alignment in values, particularly around sustainability.

“Our core mission is around youth homelessness, but sustainability is our secondary mission,” Tenille says. “If we don’t focus on creating a sustainable future that young people can really thrive in, what’s all our work for?”