Social Bite’s Josh Littlejohn details his mental health struggles

After opening a café in Edinburgh to support the local homeless population, Littlejohn hosted three of his staff in his one-bedroom flat.

“When we started Social Bite I was pretty obsessed with it,” he said. “I woke up and thought about it and went to bed and dreamed about it; it was an all-consuming passion, but it’s not sustainable.”

“I wasn’t seeing my family enough or making enough time for friends, and it was a bit of tunnel vision.”

The pressure took a toll on his mental health, and he began having panic attacks that took him to the emergency room multiple times.

“It was a really scary experience and you think you’re going to die,” he added. Now 36, he was prescribed Valium and cognitive-behavioural therapy and began exercising for the sake of his mental and physical health – he also learned to delegate.

Littlejohn, who founded Social Bite in 2012 with his former business partner Alice Thompson, is now the recipient of five honorary doctorates, an MBE and a Robert Burns Humanitarian Award and is listed in Debrett’s as one of the most influential people in the UK.

Social Bite started on Rose Street in the New Town and began employing people from homelessness backgrounds after a man named Josh Hart, a Big Issue salesman, walked in to ask for a job.

Littlejohn and Thompson, who left the company in 2020, also hired two brothers, Pete and Joe, who found success at the coffee shop but lost their homeless shelter.

Working at Social Bite became untenable because they had nowhere to shower, so Littlejohn invited them to stay with him, one on each sofa in his living room.

“It was supposed to be two weeks, but they were there for over a year,” Littlejohn said, “and then another employee moved in, so you can imagine the chaos.”

“It didn’t seem strange at the time, but looking back you’re not able to find the balance at all.”

As Social Bite has grown, so has its staff base, and Littlejohn says he’s much better able to find balance in his life now that he has “far more talented people than I do” working with him .

Getting married a few years ago and becoming a father eleven months ago also helped him refocus his priorities.

During lockdown, in the downtime caused by the pandemic, Littlejohn wrote a book – Paying It Forward – about his personal experiences and starting a social business.

When he left university, he said he was politically and socially motivated, but also had an entrepreneurial drive – perhaps thanks to his millionaire parents Simon and Heather – and didn’t know how to be content.

It was reading a book by Bangladeshi social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus that inspired him to combine his ethical position and business acumen.

He said: “I had just left university and had never heard of the term social enterprise at the time. There was no cultural reference point for trying to start a company with a social mission. The only purpose of a company was to make a profit.” .

“Reading this book lit a fire in me as I experienced this idea and felt a real sense of alignment.”

Littlejohn not only hopes that the book will inspire other people in business to use their more altruistic motivations and address social issues, but also that the book will be enjoyable reading for his son when he is old enough.

With a public relations stunt, Littlejohn lured Hollywood stars George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio to endorse Social Bite in its early days, and he’s done the same with the new book: endorsements so far come from Bob Geldof, Irvine Welsh and Martin Compston and Helen Mirren to name a few.

The first café on Rose Street has now grown into a range of cafés – the most recent being on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow – as well as a village providing shelter for the homeless and fundraising nights in 52 cities around the world.

Social Bite has also raised more than £25m for charity.

However, the success was not without its challenges. When it was first announced that Social Bite would build a homeless village in Edinburgh, there were many opponents who predicted it would be a run-down ghetto. “The homeless shelter status quo in Edinburgh was so bad, horrible hostels with bed bugs and piss stained mattresses and no support and people were really in a crisis and their mental health was deteriorating.

“That was the other option, so we knew for sure that it would have been literally impossible to do anything worse.”

“We just tried to stay true to our vision and that was one of the projects I’m really proud of.”

The Social Bite Village, which offers housing as well as practical support, has helped around 100 people find permanent housing and there are plans to build two more villages.

Littlejohn said: “One of my favorite things to do is go there. It’s a thriving little community with garden wars between some houses with little ponds and gnomes and really impressive gardens.”

While attempting to maintain a politically neutral stance, Littlejohn scathingly criticizes what he feels has been a longstanding failure to adequately tackle homelessness in Scotland – and particularly the missed opportunity in the wake of the pandemic.

He said: “The vast majority of homeless shelters are run by private landlords, so it’s a very strange, lucrative niche where these unscrupulous private landlords are literally cashing in on human misery and gobbling up large amounts of the community budget to provide these private shelters become.” Sector housing and it just feels like a waste.

“It’s not that hard, it’s just about giving someone good support and a nice roof over their head.”

“It could easily be funded within existing budgets, but it’s the vulnerable people who really suffer.”

“During the pandemic it was treated as a public health issue and that gave it a sense of urgency because it affected everyone, the political will was there and the funding was there and everyone who was uneasy across the UK was brought in. ”

“So that shows that some radical things can happen when the political will is there.”

In 2018, Social Bite used funds from the Big Sleepout project, which sees fundraisers sleeping outdoors overnight, successfully lobbying the Scottish Government to partially fund a Housing First scheme.

The social enterprise commissioned research to examine how other countries tackle homelessness and found a significant drop in statistics in Finland, which uses the Housing First model.

Previously, homeless people had to prove they were “rent-ready” by dealing with mental health and other issues before being granted housing. As a result, however, vulnerable people remained in temporary accommodation.

Social Bite backed the project with £2.3million and persuaded landlords in five cities across Scotland to mortgage 830 one-bedroom apartments.

The Scottish Government then pledged £6.5million – and the scheme has helped 1,000 people and changed local government policy.

Littlejohn said: “We realized that instead of standing by and commissioning a study, we needed to do the business, mobilize and try to persuade the local authorities to join us.”

“You need to understand your place in the world and know where you belong. There are many larger charities that lobby and we don’t need to duplicate that. We have to be the innovators, the challengers and the entrepreneurial thinkers.”

The Herald speaks to Littlejohn at the new Sauchiehall Street cafe, which is next door to a Cafe Nero and a stone’s throw from a Pret a Manger.

Due to nearby commercial competition, the facilities are “by far the best we’ve ever made” and is currently running employment programs to provide work for the homeless.

The cafe is open to both the homeless and the paying public for 90 minutes each morning and afternoon, attracting around 100 homeless people each day.

On Tuesdays the café is completely closed to offer hot meals to the homeless.

Initially, Social Bite’s cafes were open to paying customers and the homeless at all times, but Littlejohn had to adjust the model when it became clear that paying customers were unhappy with sharing the space.

This may seem offensive, but Littlejohn takes a pragmatic approach to the challenge of balancing commercial and social elements of the business.

He said: “It doesn’t frustrate me at all, it’s just the nature of these things and what we’re trying to do is quite unique and unusual.”

As long as we exist, it will always be difficult for us to reconcile these two tensions.

“Homeless people come in and they get the sense of dignity of being next to paying customers in a high street cafe environment and there’s something important about that.”

“It’s a really delicate balance that brings tension, but it’s really rewarding when you get it right.”

Staff can be part barista and part social worker, so there is now an in-house counselor to support workers with any mental health issue or stress.

It wasn’t his idea, he adds, but given his own mental health issues, it’s an important addition for Littlejohn.

Littlejohn has a tattoo on his arm from a trip to Thailand five years ago that reads, “There’s no them and we, there’s only us,” aptly summing up his outlook on life.

However, his mother was unimpressed.

“That’s very good,” she said to him, “but couldn’t you have just put it on your shirt?”

That’s a reassuring ending: You can be a successful entrepreneur, multiple award winner, and celebrity darling—and still get a fight from your mom.

Grace Reader

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