Homeless people, prison leavers, and veterans are often out of work due to a mix of stigma and circumstance. Now companies are looking to change that

Paul became homeless in December 2020, when the pub he called home closed for good. Until the pandemic, he’d had a secure job and a roof over his head. Lockdowns put an end to both.

“Becoming homeless was a big shock for me,” he says. All of a sudden “my future really had no meaning. I lost a lot of respect for what was going on around me. The clothes I had were dirty. I hadn’t washed for a few days. I don’t think I was in a good state of mind to be looking for work.”

Like Paul, people who are homeless typically encounter numerous barriers to finding work. The lack of a stable home can make it difficult to find and maintain employment, while their situation can create or exacerbate issues such as poor mental and physical health. They also face discrimination. Four out of 10 employers admitted they would likely seek to terminate an employee’s contract if they were homeless, according to a survey by Crisis last year.

It’s a similar story for prison leavers. Although about one in six people in the UK has a previous conviction, according to government figures, research from charity Working Chance found 30% of employers say they would exclude any candidate with a criminal record.

“If you look at what people’s perceptions are, on the whole it is: ‘I’m not sure about hiring a prison leaver because they’re either going to be a psychopath, or a sex offender, or they’re going to steal from me,” says Greg Mangham, founder and CEO of Only A Pavement Away, a charity helping homeless people into employment.

“Or if I take someone from the military and they say they’ve got anxiety, it’s probably PTSD. And if we take someone who’s homeless, they’re probably going to have bottle of vodka and occasionally I’m going to have to clean them up. That’s the perception.”

It is a stigmatisation that is keeping millions of Brits out of work. But in certain corners of the food industry, change is underway. An increasing number of businesses are launching schemes to recruit from groups that face particular barriers to employment, such as the homeless, prison leavers, or those with long-term mental or physical health issues.

“The clothes I had were dirty. I hadn’t washed for a few days. I don’t think I was in a good state of mind to be looking for work”

These schemes aren’t just driven by altruism. With the UK’s unemployment rate at historical lows, large parts of the food industry are struggling to find enough workers. Analysis of ONS data by The Grocer in January 2022 found the entire sector – including farming, food production, retail and hospitality – had lost 290,000 full-time workers since the start of 2020.

It means businesses could benefit hugely from employing sections of society that have been overlooked. Almost 300,000 people are currently registered as homeless in England, according to Shelter’s January figures, while official figures show there are 12 million people with criminal convictions. Tapping into these groups could go along way to addressing the sector’s chronic labour shortages.

manufacturing people Red_Potatoes_08

Source: Cook

In many cases, it falls to charities like Only A Pavement Away to fill the gap. Set up in 2018 by Greg and Gill Mangham, the organisation acts as a conduit between “forward-thinking employers” in the hospitality industry and charities working with people facing or experiencing homelessness, prison leavers and veterans. “The way we work is that individuals can’t apply for the jobs. The charities or organisations have to apply on their behalf,” says Greg Mangham.

“And then the employer knows that person is ready for work, they’ve been prepared for work, they have all the documentation. The employer also knows what their offence was – so it’s not a surprise – and if they’re going through some sort of addiction or substance abuse, and how far they are on with that.”

Only A Pavement Away also provides at least one year of emotional and financial support, including a ‘passport to employment week’, help with accommodation benefits, and, when necessary, chasing up either the employer or the applicant following an interview.

Around 125 major chains and businesses including Greene King, Nando’s and Brewdog are now signed up. As is the Ivy in Mayfair, which now employs Paul. He is one of 300 people Only A Pavement Away has helped into work since 2018. The target is 5,000 by 2026.

It’s good news for anyone getting a job. But what do the businesses get out of it? As Mangham says, not only are these people often well-trained from previous jobs, but their recent experiences can often bring a unique set of skills as well.

“If you take someone from the military, where else are you going to get someone with that teamwork, discipline, camaraderie? If you take someone who is homeless, you’re going to get someone who is tough, who has tenacity and the strength to survive.”

And once they’re employed, they’re more likely to hang around. The retention rate through Only A Pavement Away is on average 38 weeks and at least 70% stay for over a year. In hospitality, that’s not half bad.


Second chances

Another such initiative is Cook’s ‘RAW Talent Programme’. It proved a lifeline for Anthony Grimmond, who was released from prison in 2021 following a three-and-a-half-year sentence. Finding a job was tough. Not only was he a chef looking for work in the pandemic, but many employers were just not interested in anyone coming out of prison.

“It seemed like everything I worked for before I went to prison amounted to nothing,” he says. “I had a good reputation as a chef, I’d managed hotels and high-class places, and it all went down the drain.”

It was only when his probation officer and jobs coach recommended Cook’s programme that things began to look up. The scheme was designed by the frozen ready meals company to support people into work who would otherwise struggle to find a good job.

The scheme kicks off with a two-week training programme in which applicants take on trial shifts plus a range of skills classes. “We work a lot on skills like motivation, creating a more positive picture for the future,” says Cook co-CEO Rosie Brown. “We also do quite a lot around confidence, which is often at rock bottom.

“And we do a lot around work skills as sometimes it’s people who have never lived in a house where there’s been work, so there is no sort of language around work,” she adds.

Asda driver wez_1433

Wez Thompson is an army veteran

At the end of the two weeks, there is a job interview, “because we feel it’s really important that they have to make a choice to step up and take ownership,” says Brown. If they start the role, all RAW recruits receive buddying support for as long as they need it, usually for three to six months but some for a year or more.

“It feels like you’ve got the second chance you need,” says Grimmond, who passed through the scheme two years ago. “A lot of people, when they come out of prison fall straight back into their old life so they are in and out of prison because no one will give them that second chance. Cook stops loads of people reoffending.”

Like the Only A Pavement Away scheme, Cook’s initiative inspires loyalty. Cook currently employs 43 RAW Talent recruits – 5% of its total workforce – and three in four stay for more than six months. “Where not a lot of people give us a chance, we like to work even harder to prove we’re not the person that society pictures,” says Grimmond.

Cook is also better off for it, says Brown. “It enriches our whole culture,” she says. “All the research says the more inclusive workplaces and diverse workplaces are more successful. And the research ain’t wrong.”

A similar aim is behind the Veterans into Logistics initiative. It was established by Darren Wright, whose close friend Jamie Doyle was found dead at his home in 2018 – less than 12 months after leaving the army. Wright concluded more must be done for ex-military personnel struggling to adapt.

As Doyle’s case highlights, adapting to civilian life can be difficult for many veterans. They often struggle to fill the absence of the military’s strict boundaries, high-pressure situations, and close, often familial, bonds. As a result, the rate of homelessness, mental health issues, and in the worst cases, suicide, is considerably higher than the rest of the population.


Registered homeless



Rise in forced homelessness in past five years



Veterans with mental health issues



Prisoners on probation



Ex-offender less likely to reoffend if employed

Source: Only A Pavement Away

Wright felt much of this could be avoided by helping, mentoring, and supporting veterans into a new career. So in 2020, he established Veterans into Logistics.

In the past two-and-a-half years, the initiative has paid for over 300 veterans to take their Class 1 HGV driving tests, allowing them to drive articulated lorries on Britain’s roads. As well as the licence itself, the veterans benefit from six weeks’ mentorship from another driver, and continued support.

Müller, Tesco, and Asda are all now involved, with Asda alone donating £40k last year to train 10 drivers. Wez Thomson was Asda’s first recruit earlier this year, and is clear on the importance of charities like Veterans into Logistics for those leaving the military.

“If we were in America you’d get well looked after. But over here, apart from these little charities, you’d be another person left to probably end up on the streets.”

Further support by businesses could undoubtedly go a long way to cut back on the number of veterans becoming homeless and prison leavers reoffending. But the government may also have to step up.

Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt have told business leaders tackling Britain’s shrinking workforce will be at the heart of next month’s budget. Mel Stride, the work & pensions secretary, is leading an internal government review of the problem.

Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality, is among those pushing for the budget to include reform of the Apprenticeship Levy as part of the change. For now, it can only be used for formal programmes that last at least 12 months and lead to qualifications at level three or above. The issue is, for many roles across the food sector, this isn’t necessarily the right option.

For example, many roles only require a few weeks’ training, which they are unable to fund with the apprenticeship levy. “Yet without this, many businesses have insufficient funds to put towards these alternative training schemes,” says Nicholls.

M&S CEO Stuart Machin has also thrown his weight behind such a reform, claiming it would help expand the ‘Marks & Start’ scheme for young people facing barriers to work. As has Tesco CEO Ken Murphy.

Could they up their game without it? Perhaps. But when it comes to transforming Britain’s workforce, a Tesco strapline rings true: every little helps.