Since 2010 there has been a 50% rise in homelessness in England. Social enterprise, Fat Macy’s is out to combat this through hosting delicious, intimate supper clubs.
People living in temporary accommodation are faced with many obstacles when it comes to taking those first steps towards independent living. Over two thirds of people living in YMCA hostels say they can’t save money while in supported accommodation. The more they earn, the less they get back in benefits. While paying hostel charges, saving for a housing deposit becomes almost impossible. Enter, Fat Macy’s. Through hosting an ongoing series of supper clubs, the enterprise’s profits are put into housing deposit schemes for the participants. With every event, each chef or server makes a progressive step towards saving for their future. The workers volunteer their time and in return accumulate credit, paid into a deposit fund, which is held until they have enough for a deposit. We caught up with the brains behind the operation, Meg Doherty to find out how she came to set up the initiative and the highs and lows so far.
THE BEGINNING OF AN IDEA
“I started Fat Macy’s in March 2016 and it’s all been a bit of a whirlwind.” Meg explains to me. “I did Year Here which is a course on social innovation and entrepreneurships where you do a series of placements.” Having worked in various charities and taken part in internships in the past, she had always felt disconnected to the group of people she was trying to help. The ethos at Year Here was entirely different. Their approach is “you need to live a problem to understand it.” So she undertook at a placement at a YMCA hostel in North London. “It was one of those ‘wow, this is really shit’ moments. Nothing [in the hostel] really happens. I’d thought of temporary accommodation as temporary, but it’s not. The average stay is two years.”
On her placement, she noticed a tiny kitchen in the hostel upstairs. So Meg started doing cooking sessions, running to the shops for ingredients and opening the kitchen up to people staying in the hostel. “I realised that they had really great recipes, and if you think of the wealth of backgrounds in the hostel – Caribbean, North African, East African, Middle Eastern, Polish – there’s a huge range. Everyone had their mum’s or their grandma’s recipe for jerk chicken or a stew.” Being in Crouch End, she saw that the area had a lot of young families and brunch spots and started to connect the dots. “These guys were cooking up a storm in the hostel, eating it and not thinking of it as anything special or useful. I just thought – wait a minute – there’s got to be a way of mashing the two together.”
One of the things Meg wants to help resolve is the endless cycle, or spiral of downwards momentum when it comes to being homeless. “A lot of people don’t have bank accounts because they don’t have ID. If you don’t have ID, you can’t have a bank account and you can’t get a job.” Not only that, but the way in which the benefit system in the UK works is counterintuitive. If you work under 16 hours a week, you get the full housing benefit. But when someone feels ready to find full time work, the housing benefit gets cut at such a large rate, they can no longer afford to pay the hostel fees and save enough to move out. “The jump that they’re expected to pay is enormous and it means no one has any incentive to work because the more you work, the harder you work, the less money you have, because you’re paying more back into the hostel.”
While Fat Macy’s is doing a world of good, it hasn’t been the easiest of rides, both for Meg and the participants. “When you’re at that level of being so reliant on state bodies, they have so much power to cut your money off or if you miss even one meeting. They can tell you the same day that you have to come in for a meeting. In the normal world, that doesn’t happen. You could negotiate a day that works for you, but they don’t have that freedom, which is a real shame.”
Not only that, but being the one in charge of it all is pretty daunting. “I’ve never done anything like this before. And it’s interesting when you know that nobody is going to tell you what to do next. Being that person who has to make the decisions, and know the right thing to do is quite a challenge.”
THE SILVER LININGS
For every down, there’s been an up. The very first event they did sticks out in Meg’s mind as a particular highlight. “People were essentially paying to cover the cost of the whole event. I had the number of a pizza place around the corner on my phone at the ready, just in case we burnt down the kitchen. But it went really well. We had three guys helping out and they all spoke at different parts of the evening and shared a bit about themselves. Just seeing their faces at the end of it, when they realised they did that, was amazing.
Before that point, it was all a pipedream. Meg asked them to take a leap of faith with her and they did. “I said ‘can you join me on this?’ I had no proof it would work. It was a logo and a Facebook page. Just seeing how much they enjoyed it and got from it – it’s as beneficial for them as it is for the people going along to eat.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
A big part of what Fat Macy’s aims to do is change the public’s perception of what it is to be homeless. Meg explains, “being homeless is not innate. If you become homeless, you might get a job and get your house back and then you’re not homeless anymore.”
The next step for Fat Macy’s is moving to a permanent home. They successfully campaigned to raise enough money to open a space in Peckham, where they will be able to host more events and in turn, help more people go from hostel to home. Follow along with Fat Macy’s journey and see more updates on their Instagram.