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From the ground up: the social start-up helping to alleviate homelessness

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Many of us aspire to make a difference in some way, but it can be hard knowing where to start.  Ground+Co is a Perth-based cafe making social contribution easier – all you need is some small change and a love of coffee.

Founded Katie Liew, a Curtin Ignition and commerce graduate, Ground+Co is the first project of Liew’s social enterprise, The Underground Collaborative, which provides employment and housing solutions for people experiencing homelessness, or at risk of homelessness.

By purchasing a coffee from Ground+Co (located at the State Library of WA), you’re helping to provide economic and social security to some of Perth’s most marginalised.

“Every coffee people buy helps us to continue employing people experiencing homelessness,” Liew says.

“This not only provides them some financial stability, confidence and all the wonderful benefits of employment, but can also reduce the duration of homelessness as our employees become more empowered, gain independence and, most importantly, transition into long-term stable housing to somewhere they can call home.”

Through its partnership with women’s refuge Zonta House, Ground+Co employs women who receive in-house training and mentorship from two professional baristas, with the aim of qualifying for future employment in the hospitality sector.

Two women wave happily from behind a coffee cart.
All of Ground + Co’s profits go towards employing and training people to become qualified baristas.

“A couple of our older employees from Zonta House hadn’t had the opportunity to work for maybe 10 years because of their situation. So being able to work and earn an income for themselves has been a big change for them,” Liew says.

“Even though they’ve only been with us for two or three months, we’ve seen their confidence levels increase, and have witnessed them becoming a lot more social and competent in learning the trade. They’re also becoming valued members of society again because they haven’t always had the opportunity to be involved.”

More than 116,000 Australians will not have a home tonight. Of those, seven per cent will sleep rough, but Liew says there are other, less visible forms of homelessness, including couch surfing, transitional housing and living in severely overcrowded dwellings.

Causes of homelessness are far-ranging and complex. The Human Rights Commission cites poverty, family breakdown, shortage of affordable housing, mental illness, sexual assault, addiction and social isolation as factors. Domestic violence is the single leading cause of homelessness in Australia.

“There’s a lack of education by the general public about what homelessness is, and because it can be confronting, people often don’t know how to help,” Liew says.

She also says over exposure to images that objectify people in poverty can cause us to become desensitised to social equality messages or campaigns.

Liew purposefully set up Ground+Co in the guts of the city so people from all backgrounds can stop by the cart, learn about the employees’ stories and go away a little more educated and empathetic (all with a good coffee in hand).

Close up shot of a hand holding a cup of flat white.
Forget sugar – you can now add some social goodness to your daily caffeine fix.

The coffee shop isn’t Liew’s first foray into social contribution. She has volunteered with multiple initiatives since she graduated from Curtin in 2006 with a commerce degree in Accounting and Business Law. But it wasn’t until she took a break from her accounting career and spent two months camping in Africa that she fully understood the abject inequality experienced by communities, and how Western efforts can actually exacerbate the situation.

“We have the best of intentions, but sometimes we can end up doing more harm than good.

“Western countries are coming in and just doing things for people, instead of establishing things that are sustainable and enable people to empower themselves.

“I think for a long time I was trying to decide what my purpose was, and when I came home, I knew I couldn’t do what I was doing anymore. I was in that mindset where I knew I had to take action.”

Upon starting her journey with The Underground Collaborative, Liew began to learn more about homelessness and how she could provide practical help. She soon developed the blueprint for Ground+Co and enrolled in the Curtin Ignition program, which helps start-ups to prepare and trial their business ideas for the commercial environment.

“The Ignition program helped me to learn about how we could sustain ourselves with a greater business sense, and gave us exposure to people in the business world, including access to pro bono lawyers.”

Ground+Co launched in 2019 and joins the insurgence of social start-ups – enterprises that aim to create positive impact through the sale of ethical goods or services.

“People are becoming more aware of where their money is going and what effect their consumerism is having,” Liew says of the bourgeoning social start-up market.

The young entrepreneur has her sights set on establishing coffee operations in other parts of Perth and Western Australia, but also wants to expand into new initiatives, as she realises hospitality is not for everyone.

“We’re thinking about how we can be more innovative in this space. Yes, cafés are good, but we need to do more and think more boldly. It’s not going to be easy, but we need to get those conversations going.”

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