Sage advice offered to the homeless at the Big Onion, a Bootle project designed to kick-start a brand-new kind of British high street, has become the first retailer in the country to be designated Homeless-Friendly. Created by Merseyside Expanding Horizons (MEH), The Big Onion offers entrepreneurs all the ingredients they need to succeed, including shop space and long-term business mentoring. It serves as a community hub and employment support centre for would-be workers.
Post pandemic, the project is fighting to establish a new kind of shopping experience offering unique goods made with love and sold at affordable prices. The Big Onion also wants customers from all layers of society to be welcomed and respected at precincts – which is why it has joined forces with one of Britain’s fastest-emerging charities, Homeless Friendly. “I created Homeless-Friendly because rough sleepers told me they were being refused treatment at doctor’s surgeries and had to walk miles to get medical attention” revealed Dr Zahid Chauhan OBE, founder of the good cause. “It really made me think about how those without a fixed address are stigmatised and deprived of decent services. Homeless-Friendly has since flowered into a concern campaigning well beyond the health service and now charities, local authorities and even football clubs are looking at their homeless provision. As yet, retailers who are at the heart of their communities haven’t responded to the call – which is why I am so pleased that The Big Onion is on board.” Homeless-Friendly merely asks organisations to examine their policies and procedures and pledge to make them accessible to rough sleepers, sofa surfers and those living in temporary accommodation. Many partners act as information points for the #homeless – and that is where The Big Onion could prove so useful.
Bubbly Lynn Conley is responsible for meeting and greeting customers at the Bootle Strand outfit. A former bar worker and #charity shop manager, the 53-year-old said: “Bootle people are so friendly, but they are struggling after COVID and are desperate to talk to someone after all the isolation. We are building-up a regular clientele and are able to speak with them to find out what’s going on in their lives.” Lynn hopes that the stallholders inspire homeless people with the belief that they too can work and re-build their lives. She has endured periods of unemployment and hardship herself, once using local taxis to take her – and her goods – to a Sunday market. Apart from her welcoming role, she creates what she calls upcycling furniture, using skills she has picked-up to transform pre-loved items such as drawers and tables. Lynn has rented The Big Onion window to display her products and says: “I find using a saw very therapeutic!” Nicola Daley, Chief Executive of Merseyside Expanding Horizons, added: “This partnership with Homeless-Friendly seems so natural to us. They will provide us with the information to enable customers experiencing homeless to find everything from accommodation to an accessible GP. This does not make us a homeless shelter, rather a provider of hope and inspiration, and for our traders this could be their first taste of what it is like to be a business with a responsibility to its community.”
Whilst MEH made its own corporate Homeless-Friendly pledge, comics and collectables, bath bomb, florist, novelty gifts and stone crafted items stores made individual promises, too. Poignantly a barber, who had lived in a tent whilst homeless himself, put his name to the pledge. Lynn Conley concluded, “I just love it at The Big Onion and after being on benefits for a while, I now have my confidence and security back. I am developing a business plan and have big dreams for the future. The atmosphere is so supportive here for each other and towards everyone else in the community, including the homeless.”
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