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‘The sleep-out will be big, but the dream is massive‘

Actor George Clooney visit's Social Bite sandwich shop in Edinburgh where he met owner Josh Littlejohn
Actor George Clooney visit's Social Bite sandwich shop in Edinburgh where he met owner Josh Littlejohn

He may be “little” by name, but there is nothing diminutive about Josh Littlejohn’s ambitions.

As the founder of the Social Bite outlets in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, this is the man who persuaded George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio to visit the premises of the social enterprise in the Scottish capital.

He has organised a sleep-out event, involving chief executives and sporting luminaries, such as Olympic cycling champion Chris Hoy, where breakfast was served by Nicola Sturgeon.

But even judged by those remarkable successes, Mr Littlejohn’s latest plan is a hugely ambitious one.

He aims to eradicate homelessness in his native Scotland within the next five years by forging collaborative partnerships with the private and public sector and local authorities.

To which end, the 31-year-old is today meeting the chief executive of Aberdeen City Council, Angela Scott, as part of an ongoing effort to promote a high-profile event on December 9.

The venture has been backed by Sir Bob Geldof and features the likes of Liam Gallagher, Amy Macdonald and Deacon Blue, comedy from Rob Brydon and a ‘bedtime’ story from John Cleese, before thousands of people – the target is 9,000 – go to sleep in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens.

Mr Littlejohn talked to the P&J about the motivation behind this initiative and was typically bullish about his chances of making it a success.

Some people might regard homelessness in Scotland as an intractable problem which will take decades to resolve, but he isn’t among their number.

Instead, and after having offered employment opportunities to many homeless people, he envisages radical solutions to addressing the root cause.

He said: “We have commissioned a report from Heriot Watt University, called Eradicating Core Homelessness in Scotland, which will be published early in October, and I think it will open a lot of people’s eyes.

“The latest figures show there are 11,000 homeless families, involving around 20,000 individuals, in Scotland, and that is something I am determined to tackle.

“We have already made progress with Social Bite, and we are creating a little village for people looking for accommodation in Edinburgh, but this needs bigger partnerships between the different bodies.

“Back in 2012, when I started out, we had to learn very quickly what did and didn’t work. We came to realise the links from accommodation through to support through to employment were the dots which have never really been joined before. So, the village is working our way to the final point, which is really going back to the beginning.”

Asked whether he thought homelessness was becoming more difficult to tackle, due to austerity and factors such as the oil and gas downturn, he replied: “No, it’s simpler.” And, when asked to explain the distinction between the “us and them” in Scottish society, he pointed to a tattoo on his right arm with the words: “There is no them and us. There is only us.”

It’s perhaps not what one would expect from the son of an entrepreneur, Simon Littlejohn, who built a restaurant empire. But sometimes, revolutionaries emerge from unlikely places. And, as Mr Littlejohn explained, he was somebody who felt uncomfortable about his privileged childhood and resolved to help others from an early stage.

He said: “I just feel lucky. I got nothing but love – on Christmas mornings, there were always mountains of presents. I am only in the position to do what I’m doing and think the way I think by virtue of the cards dealt to me. These guys [the homeless, who sought work openings in Social Bite] had opposite cards dealt to them. When you think about that, you have nothing but compassion for them.

“It could absolutely have been me or you, they just got different cards, different families, different upbringings.”

In the coming months, the Princes Street venture will be at the forefront of his thoughts. It is already being compared to Live Aid, in size and scale, and is designed to raise £4million, which will be ploughed back into a variety of projects throughout Scotland. It is one reason why he is visiting Aberdeen and Dundee today – to crack heads together, use his experiences to inspire others, and deliver a really bold message.

“We announced details of Sleep in the Park at the end of August and we have already had 2,000 people sign up,” he said. “We have already raised half a million pounds. And that has happened in only three weeks. I honestly believe Scotland has the ability to make a huge statement to the world by ensuring nobody is homeless and sleeping on the streets within the next five years.

“We are a nation of innovators, inventors, people who have gone out and made things better all over the world, and I don’t believe that has changed. The Scottish Government is behind this. If we join the dots and look at the bigger picture, there is definitely a way forward. That’s why I am so committed to this. There are no problems without solutions and Scotland could become a vanguard nation in the future.”

Housing Minister Kevin Stewart endorsed December’s initiative. The Aberdeen Central MSP said: “Tackling and preventing homelessness remains a key priority for the Scottish Government, which is why we recently announced the formation of a new Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group and a £50million Ending Homelessness Together Fund to drive change and improvement in this area.

“We welcome Social Bite’s Sleep in the Park event as part of the change by helping to highlight the issue of homelessness to our wider society.

“Since 2007, we have delivered over 68,000 affordable homes, reintroduced council housing and supported more than 23,000 people into home ownership. We are on track to deliver even more by 2021 with our commitment to deliver at least 50,000 affordable homes – including 35,000 social homes, backed by over £3billion investment.”

Homelessness remains a blight on Scottish society. And yet the director of Shelter Scotland has also described the lack of affordable housing in the country as being “simply unacceptable.”

Graeme Brown was responding to recent figures from the Scottish Government, which highlight how local authorities face a variety of challenges.

Part of the problem springs from young people being unable to get on the property ladder or afford expensive rent demands when they are in low-paid jobs or on zero-hours contracts.

Mr Brown told the Press and Journal: “Too many people are struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

“Scotland is increasingly being divided into the housing haves and have-nots. While home owners have been able to take advantage of rising house prices and low interest rates, those not yet on the property ladder have faced demands for ever larger deposits, while also paying high rents.

“This particularly disadvantages younger people…and building more affordable, socially-rented homes, year-on-year, is the only way to meaningfully tackle this problem.

“The Scottish Government has made a welcome pledge to deliver £50,000 new affordable homes during the lifetime of this parliament and we are monitoring progress on this vital building programme.

Some observers have questioned whether the term “affordable” has any meaning when house prices differ in different parts of Scotland.

And councils outwith suburban communities tend to have more issues in finding accommodation for residents.

Mr Brown added: “Like other predominantly rural areas, Highland, with 18%, Moray, 19%, and Aberdeenshire, 15%, have less social housing than the Scottish average of 23%.

“This means there is less choice for people looking for secure, affordable homes, in these areas, and we must make sure rural Scotland gets its fair share.”

Aberdeenshire Council’s head of housing, Rob Simpson, said: “There is a clear demand for affordable housing in Aberdeenshire, and we are committed to contributing towards the Scottish Government’s target of 50,000 new homes.

“Between April 2016 and March this year, 223 new affordable homes have been completed across Aberdeenshire across all partners, creating 143 new homes for social rent, 48 for mid-market rent and 32 for low-cost shared equity.

“Work is now beginning on a further 354 units for social rent, 12 mid-market and seven for low-cost shared equity across Aberdeenshire.

“Homeless presentations in Aberdeenshire have been dropping and are 5% lower this year compared to last year.”

There was no response from Highland or Moray councils.