Since opening its doors in 1975, Brisbane’s 139 Club has been a safe haven for the city’s homeless. Looking after one of the most overlooked groups in society, they offer essential services, such as medical access, shower facilities, counselling and day beds. But in April last year, the organisation went one one better, transforming its current canteen into a bonafide eatery known as 3rd Space Cafe.
Taking its name from the “Third Place” theory that we all need a social space separate from home and work, the cafe is a far cry from a traditional “soup kitchen” set-up of bain-maries, styrofoam cups and a rush to get in – and out. But for 139 Club CEO Sara Harrup, the shift is about more than mixing up a menu.
“We first had the idea of revolutionising our kitchen and dining room operation about 18 months ago,” Harrup says. “[Soup kitchen] cooking is limited in variety and, from our perspective, doesn’t make meal times particularly social. It’s lots of people crowding, forming lines, eating and leaving.”
Keen to explore other meal-providing models, Harrup visited Sydney’s Wayside Chapel Cafe, a Kings Cross institution known for serving low-cost, freshly prepared meals to patrons in a friendly, relaxed environment. Sara Harrup points to JBJ Soul Kitchen in New Jersey, in the United States, as another source of inspiration. Offering three-course meals at a pay-what-you-can prices, the restaurant is run by volunteers who, in return for time, can bring their family in for a free dinner.
Back in Brisbane, the most recent Census data estimates 200 people sleep rough in the CBD every night, and between 50 to 100 will eat at 139 Club each day. So, when it came to creating the cafe menu, Sara Harrup acknowledges there are complex factors at play.
“The challenge is needing to look after people’s health and nutrition,” she notes. “Many of our patrons suffer from chronic health problems, like diabetes, as well as intolerances and obesity.”
“The other big issue is people who come here often have poor dentistry, so we need to provide meals that are easy for them to manage.”
To devise a set menu of low-cost, healthy options and a free special of the day, the cafe enlisted a nutritionist to work with their resident chef. Harrup says it’s important for the daily specials to lose “the stigma of soup and being the ‘free’ option”.
Run by volunteers such as Katherine Raisbeck, 3rd Space Cafe offers food to Brisbane CBD's 200 homeless people
This canteen-to-cafe shift was backed by a $259,000 funding boost from the Queensland State Government’s Dignity First Fund, a grant-giving initiative that helps organisations respond to homelessness. Another recipient you may be familiar with is Orange Sky Laundry – a free, mobile laundry service created by the 2016 Young Australians of the Year, Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett.
139 Club will employ social enterprise techniques and turn to sustainable practices, like composting, into new streams of revenue.
“We’re looking at a closed lid composting unit which can pretty much process anything,” Hurrup says. “It can turn 20 kilograms of food waste into compost into 24 hours, so we’re really hoping to create a venture out of that.
This social enterprise idea isn’t foreign to community kitchens. In Sydney, for example, the Wayside Chapel produces rooftop honey for chef Kylie Kwong and her nearby restaurant. Keen to explore a similar path, 3rd Space Cafe aims to create and distribute edible products, such as handmade cheese, to the wider public.
Aside from quenching appetites and composting, 3rd Space Cafe plans to offer hospitality training to visitors. Cafe patrons can gain experience in kitchen preparation or front of house service, and Di Bella Coffee will provide barista training for those wanting to develop new skills.
As Harrup explains, many of the patrons suffer from complex issues, including drug and alcohol dependencies, mental health issues, chronic illness, antisocial behaviour or developmental issues, so there are limitations on what some can do or how much they can commit to.
“For us, it’s about meeting people where they’re at and providing them with the opportunity to contribute however they can,” she says.
SBS's new season of Filthy Rich & Homeless is an honest and compassionate exploration of what it’s like to be homeless in Australia today as it shines a light on a part of our society often overlooked and ignored. Watch the trailer below:
Filthy Rich and Homeless airs over three nights – Tuesday 14, Wednesday 15 and Thursday 16 August on SBS from 8.30pm. A special live studio program will air directly after episode three.
Join the conversation #FilthyRichHomeless