“A free coffee when you’re down-and-out is heavenly,” Damo Carroll says, sipping at a freshly brewed latte with a neat milk foam rosetta artfully drawn on top.
The Port Adelaide man knows only too well what life is like on the poverty line. A plumber and self-confessed alcoholic, Carroll came within a hair’s breadth of homelessness after losing his licence and then his job for drink driving two years ago. Now Carroll, 38, has become the unlikely champion of a program helping connect the needy with free coffees across Adelaide, a spin-off from a humble tradition that began in the Italian city of Naples some 100 years ago. Called caffè sospeso or ‘suspended coffee’, customers would pay in advance for another who could not afford a cup of coffee. The elegant pay-it-forward, anonymous act of charity and kindness – in which the donor often doesn’t meet the recipient – waned as the Italian economy picked up postwar but made a comeback in recent years as the eurozone battled a long-running economic crisis. The tradition quickly spread around the world, including the US, Canada and Japan, and arrived in Australia last year. In Adelaide, more than 15 cafes are now involved. But some Adelaide cafes have found connecting those in need with a hot cuppa challenging. In Port Adelaide, the Red Lime Shack on St Vincent Street has devised its own solution, cards bearing two tokens that can be redeemed for two coffees or one smoothie, which are given to local counsellors and non-profit group coordinators to be handed on to the disadvantaged. The cards are also given to Carroll, who has proven a secret weapon in connecting the needy with the scheme. “[Red Lime Shack] is using me as a conduit because I’m out there busking and I can see people in need, the lower demographic or whatever, the type of people who can’t afford to give a busker a dollar,” he says. “I’ll call them over and say ‘hey, would you like to try these coffees? Don’t worry, the community’s already paid for it, the community did that for you’. And they go ‘me?’ They want to give me the shirt off their back. They’re so thankful.” The program’s success likely lies in its simplicity. Ian Steel, a 46-year-old political research officer who lives and works in Port Adelaide, says the system provides a “really easy opportunity” to contribute to those less fortunate in his own community. He has donated about 30 coffees since stumbling across the Red Lime Shack’s scheme last year. “I’ve seen workers doing really well, others out of jobs in really tough times, so I appreciate that anybody can find themselves scratching around for a dollar,” he says. “I’m really lucky, I’ve been in paid employment for most of my life, I can easily afford to hand over a few extra bucks. For working people who have a bit of disposable income, it’s an affordable way of making a fairly small contribution which is often much more meaningful than it seems.” Red Lime Shack owner Stephanie Taylor says about 420 coffees have been suspended since she launched the cafe’s scheme last July and 320 have been claimed by local battlers – single mothers, troubled teens, people with mental illness and women experiencing domestic violence. Taylor agrees that each cup of coffee represents something far greater than a simple caffeine hit. “For some people they’ve actually never walked into a cafe in their life, they’ve never thought they were worthy, as if it was something that only someone of worth could do,” she says. “But they’ve realised that anyone can go into a cafe and have a coffee and sit down and not be judged and they’re now quite comfortable to do so.” Other cafes have teamed up with non-profit group Another Step Closer to ensure donations not redeemed in-store reach those in need. CEO Oliver Pfeil says Pages Cafe within Waymouth Street’s Koorong Bookstore recently handed over $800 to the Women’s and Children’s Hospital food program, while the Lunch Bar on Payneham Road gave almost $200 to homeless agency, The Hutt Street Centre. Lunch Bar owner Debbie Beelitz says often customers open their wallets and give much more than just the couple of dollars needed to cover a coffee. One woman who donated $60 told staff how she had experienced homelessness as a youngster. “I guess it’s easier than having to go find a charity and it’s local,” Beelitz says. Social media has played a large role in bringing more cafes onto the scheme and getting the word out to the community. Carroll hopes it continues to grow across Adelaide. “It gives people a break from the grind and it breaks down barriers. I feel like Santa Claus when I’m doing it,” he says. To find participating cafes in Adelaide and across Australia, head to suspendedcoffee.com.au