Enterprise and shine

Socially excluded people are being helped back into work and provided with skills, training and confidence by social enterprises. Anabel Unity Sale reports on the businesses run for social purposes that are transforming people’s lives

Jan Respondek picks up a child’s tiny cream leather shoe. Clutching it in his rough hands, stained with shoe polish, he proudly says it dates back to the second world war. Placing it alongside the other ornaments on his shoeshine stand in the Thistle Hotel in Marble Arch, London, he returns to work.

Respondek is employed by StreetShine, a social enterprise that specialises in employing people who have been homeless and who have found it difficult to find jobs. He works four days a week from 7-11am and 3-7pm in the hotel’s marble lobby, cleaning the shoes of tourists, the occasional government minister and numerous business folk. Each shoeshine, costing 4.75, takes up to 20 minutes – Respondek’s speciality is massaging people’s feet through their shoes – and he earns 5.50 per hour.

StreetShine is an example of what the government’s health and social care white paper Our Health, Our Care, Our Say encourages more organisations to do: operate a business for social purposes. Social enterprises combine the elements of business practice with the aspirations of charities to launch companies where the goal is to improve communities socially and environmentally. Profits are reinvested in the company and the community rather than divided among shareholders or owners.

Some health and social care agencies are already heeding the white paper’s call. Last month the Oxfordshire Learning Disability NHS Trust announced its plans to break free from NHS control and become a social enterprise, in the first move of its kind (Learning disability trust aims to split from NHS and set up social firm, 18 May).

The white paper emphasises the importance of developing the third sector and social enterprises to create high-quality health and social care service providers. Next April, the Department of Health will launch a social enterprise unit to co-ordinate policy and ensure a network of support is available to encourage greater use of social enterprises in health and social care.

The concept of social enterprise was also pushed up the political agenda by Tony Blair’s recent cabinet reshuffle when it was moved from the Department of Trade and Industry to the Cabinet Office. Its brief is now the responsibility of Ed Miliband, minister for the voluntary sector who is expected to promote social enterprise.

So is the government’s aim realistic? Jonathan Bland, chief executive of the Social Enterprise Coalition which represents 5,000 ventures, believes it is. The coalition has lobbied for greater involvement in care provision and Bland says: “Social enterprises can provide the innovation to sort out some of the problems in health and social care. But they need know-how and access to capital because social enterprises don’t have the access to capital that conventional businesses do.”

All manner of excluded people can be helped by social enterprises providing them with employment, training and marketable skills. Novas, the housing association, has experience of this. In September 2005 it established Caf Arlington, a chain of four social enterprise cafs employing people who use or have used its hostels, housing and support services. It has three cafs in London and one in Liverpool, each employing three staff, with one in each site using or having used Novas’s services.

A social enterprise caf might conjure up images of burned flapjacks and tasteless tea, but Massimo Bergamin, area manager for Caf Arlington in London, says this is far from the truth. “Cafs Arlington are very upmarket. They are not scruffy or hippie.” Originally from Italy and previously a retail development manager for the Costa Coffee chain, he has overseen the Caf Arlington project for a year.

Each caf staff member receives the same training and is paid 5.50 an hour during their six-month contract. They develop social and communication skills; for the Novas clients in particular it can help them reintegrate into society.

StreetShine’s chief executive Simon Fenton-Jones agrees that the benefits of social enterprises reach more than just the staff. Set up in 2002, the enterprise is now a subsidiary company of homelessness charity Thames Reach Bondway and, in addition to Respondek in the Thistle Hotel, there are 12 other shiners who go into 30 offices in the City, including firms such as KPMG and Reuters, from 9am-5pm.

But isn’t being a shoeshiner a somewhat degrading occupation? Fenton-Jones says no: “Our employees tell us being homeless and begging is degrading. Working as a shoeshiner for a living isn’t.”

One thing that would make operating easier for StreetShine and other social enterprises is a tax break from the government, he adds. As enterprises are neither solely commercial businesses nor charities they fall between the gap and end up paying for it financially.

Back at StreetShine’s stand in the Thistle Hotel, the customers are lining up. Respondek says this job has transformed his life and he gains much satisfaction from it. Born in Poland 52 years ago, he left to travel Europe when he was 26, eventually settling in California where he worked in manual jobs. Two years ago he arrived in the UK but then had his money and identity papers stolen. As a result he slept rough for six months near Victoria station.

Respondek heard about StreetShine through homelessness charity Crisis and has worked for them since last August. He says: “It is a great job and I like talking to people. They tell me things they wouldn’t tell another person because they don’t have to put up a front with me.”

Another of StreetShine’s employees is Prosper Bilay.* He wears a distinctive black uniform and cap with the enterprise’s purple logo on it when he goes on his rounds in the City. Originally from the French-speaking part of Cameroon, he worked in the UK in retail for 10 years until giving it up because of the pressure of sales targets. He joined StreetShine last August and smiles broadly when he says that he once cleaned 51 pairs of shoes in a day – the most he has ever done. He has developed such good relations with his City clients that he knows the doors to the chief executives’ offices in some of the UK’s top companies are always open to him.

Does he see his job as demeaning? “In French they have a saying, ‘there is no small job in life’. This job is rewarding and I have met a lot of senior people. They can be helpful to you if you have an entrepreneurial spirit.”

* Not his real name

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