St Mungo's offers a range of services to homeless people, including advice on setting up and running a business.
However, the organisation recognised that once back in the hostel or at home there was little support to help people build their business. They were missing opportunities to network with other businesses and were restricted by a lack of storage space or room to be creative.
One solution was to develop a space which people could work out of to build an enterprise. St Mungo's had un-used space in its basement in Southwark, which with the help of volunteers was transformed into a suitable workspace.
The first residents were Squeaky Chains, a social enterprise set up in October 2009 to repair old bikes to sell. The space is provided free of charge, and in return Squeaky Chains provide one day of training to clients each week. St Mungo's provides business support when requested, but the project leader is given independence to pursue his ideas and establish rules for his volunteers and trainees. For St Mungo's this is an important part of what the business incubator offers: to demonstrate trust in individuals and encourage independence.
Other groups have since set up within the space, on a full or part-time basis dependent on their needs. The centre aims to provide an opportunity for anybody tackling homelessness and to encourage a mix of individuals, projects and skills so that people can learn from each other.
Pros and cons of running an incubator
There are undeniably challenges. The cost of renting in London is high and the more successful the centre is the more space will be needed. The centre is only open on weekdays, which limits access to workshops and storage.
However, the space offers a secure, supportive and productive working environment. In its first year of operation Squeaky Chains trained in bike maintenance ten people affected by homelessness, many of who had no interest in bikes before. Two have gone into related employment, three have achieved City and Guild qualifications and others continue to volunteer in the workshop training new recruits.
The aim is to continue to build the centre to offer space to more businesses and social enterprises.
You can find out more about St Mungos online at www.mungos.org.