Portsmouth café's new 'pay it forward' scheme makes it easy to feed a stranger in need

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For people battling homelessness, poverty or addiction, every single day can feel like a swim against a strong current. 

Waves of hope may come but an underlying belief the struggle must be fought alone can keep many from turning to those able to provide lasting help. 

Staff from Cafe in the Park, Victoria Park, Portsmouth

Staff from Cafe in the Park, Victoria Park, Portsmouth

A new drive in the heart of Portsmouth hopes to turn that tide and integrate those in need back into society, starting with a cup of coffee. 

Pay It Forward, the initiative at the Café in the Park, in Victoria Park, lets customers buy a £2 token that stays at the venue for someone who needs it to pick up later. 

Then, when a rough sleeper or someone on the road to recovery walks in, they can simply ask for the voucher and swap it for food and a soft drink of their choice. Like the refreshments they’ll be serving, the café’s staff are special too. They are employed by the  venue’s owner, homelessness charity the Society of St James, and are given training in all aspects of catering. 

Christopher Johnston-Griffiths started his kitchen role at Café in the Park six months ago and is ‘crossing the bridge to normal living’ after more than 30 years of substance abuse. 

Assistant police and crime commissioner Enzo Riglia marks the opening of the Pay it Forward scheme, alongside caf staff and supporters. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Assistant police and crime commissioner Enzo Riglia marks the opening of the Pay it Forward scheme, alongside caf staff and supporters. Picture: Habibur Rahman

The 50-year-old caterer, whose profession and passion for good food once took him across the globe, ended up homeless after ‘hitting rock bottom’ – sleeping on beaches and in bin sheds – before one final attempt on his own life sparked a monumental wake-up call. 

He believes the impact ‘paying it forward’ could have on someone in his former position has the potential to be life-changing. 

‘When I was homeless, if someone had given me a little voucher that meant I could go somewhere safe and be able to be myself and relax, without fear of judgment, it would’ve been a godsend,’ he says. 

‘It could be that smile or that coffee that tells them “wow, I don’t have to be like this any more” and for some people it could be a turning point. 

Chris Johnston-Griffiths with one of the vouchers used as a part of the scheme

Chris Johnston-Griffiths with one of the vouchers used as a part of the scheme

‘When they do come in for a cup of tea at least you know they’re here, they’re relaxed and they’ve got something inside them and can leave their worries at the door.

‘Paying it forward is a mighty gesture and it just proves there’s empathy in the world.’ 

The scheme’s links to the Society of St James means those who benefit from it can be easily signposted in the right direction for support, should they want it. 

Leon Joseph, who also works at the café, suffered a short period of homelessness because of a drug addiction which led to crime and a prison sentence.

The Cafe in the Park, Victoria Park, Portsmouth

The Cafe in the Park, Victoria Park, Portsmouth

Like Christopher, he’s a Society of St James success story and says the scheme’s effectiveness will come by flipping on its head the typical encounter shared by a passer-by and a rough sleeper. 

‘I was on the streets when it was snowing and freezing cold,’ he says. 

‘Members of the public coming up to me and saying “would you like a hot drink” meant the world to me.’ 

He continues: ‘Some people find it hard to approach somebody if they are out on the streets, so this gives them a different way of helping.’ 

After a trial for the scheme was set up in May with the support of the Southern Co-op, which has chosen the Society of St James as its head office charity partner, Pay It Forward was officially launched on Wednesday at a ribbon-cutting with Hampshire’s assistant police and crime commissioner Enzo Riglia. 

With droves of supporters, councillors and members of the public also in attendance, many put their hands in their pockets and the £2 transactions began to fly in – each marked with a personal, handwritten note hung on the café’s special Pay It Forward tree. 

Jessica Hughes, the community investment manager for the Southern Co-op, hopes many more Good Samaritans will get wind of the drive and follow suit. 

‘I’m very hopeful this will be an amazing campaign,’ she says. 

‘What we don’t want to lose is momentum because there’s a really great energy in this now and hopefully people from across Portsmouth will come in and Pay It Forward.

‘But we will keep supporting the charity come autumn and come winter, when perhaps it’s not at the forefront of people’s minds.' 

And if they do, says Mike Taylor, operations director of the Society of St James, what begins as a cup of tea for someone in need could one day extend to a step back on the career ladder. 

‘We’re quite a family here and it’s a nice place to come and work – they’re absolutely welcome with open arms to be part of our team. 

‘But the bottom line is, if you’re homeless, you can come here and know that somebody else has taken the time to buy you a coffee so you can have a sit-down and have a normal experience, and that’s nice.

'You can feel valued and part of the community despite the difficult things you’re going through.’ 

Jessica continues: ‘This will give people the chance to have the dignity of choosing their own drink, the chance to meet new people and to find out more about services the charity is offering.

‘And maybe it’ll help them on the first steps toward meaningful recovery and support.’ 

Split between Portsmouth and Southampton, the Society of St James is Hampshire’s largest homelessness charity and provides support and specialist day and night accommodation for people facing homelessness, addiction and mental illness. 

To learn more about what the charity does, go online and visit ssj.org.uk.