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The Auckland cafe paying it forward

Merge cafe manager Manu Kahlon serves a flat white.

Merge Cafe on Auckland's Karangahape Road is no ordinary cafe.

Coffee fiends, school girls, backpackers, pensioners, real estate agents and people seeking help with housing are just a few of the many types of customers at K Road’s Merge Cafe.

“We’re just like any cafe, but with a twist,” says cafe manager Manu Kahlon.

For almost ten years, the cafe, run by social agency Lifewise, has been connecting people to social support services, as well as selling flat whites and the usual cafe fare some of which is priced at an affordable $4. The cafe asks those who can afford to pay more to pay it forward, to help their “neighbours” enjoy a nice meal or a hot cup of coffee.

Lifewise has a goal to end homelessness in Auckland, and says every dollar spent at Merge Cafe goes toward supporting the homeless.  Many of the people working there are volunteers, who have experienced homelessness themselves.

Diners have access to computers, books and workshops and more recently, the Housing First team, who are based right above the cafe.

“Some people think we are just here for providing meals for the homeless, but food is [only one] element in the whole equation,” says Kahlon.

“The basic focus is on helping people sleeping rough or who are isolated but also having a space which is a dignified environment, where people don’t feel they are being judged or anything.”

He says a key mission for the cafe is to “merge communities” – hence the name, Merge. A common misconception is that it’s exclusively for people struggling on the streets.

“Food can make friends [of people] from all walks of life. You’ve got regular business people, local K road people, tourists… it’s quite amazing, they all sit on the same table and have a chat.”

Kahlon says for some diners, a meal at Merge may be their only food for the day. For others, it’s their local. Eating at Merge does not take away food from the homeless, he emphasises.

“People think if they come here and buy a meal they are taking it away from the people who deserve it but that’s not the case. lt doesn’t matter if you are paying forward or not, your spending is actually helping us. Every dollar counts.”

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Meals at Merge range from porridge, to eggs, to French toast.

The cafe was born out of the closure of Lifewise’s Airedale St soup kitchen. The soup kitchen was originally set up in 1927 by local Methodists, but in 2010, the organisation decided to try a more inclusive approach to providing food.

Bruce Stone, chief executive of Airedale Property Trust, one of the Three Trusts which also includes Lifewise and Methodist Mission Northern, remembers the soup kitchen as an unpleasant place to go.

“I’d be coming in before seven in the morning. Our staff would be standing outside, watching for trouble. That trouble could be people hustling… people selling drugs or just being a nuisance. I reckon people were only in there for seven minutes on average.”

At Merge, the atmosphere is much more hospitable. “You will see older people there getting coffee who wouldn’t normally at the other places [coffee shops] or the soup kitchen. You see suits in there that are rubbing shoulders with each other and with marginalised people.”

Stone says Merge is a good base for Housing First – it wouldn’t have been at the soup kitchen.

This year, Lifewise isn’t holding its Big Sleepout fundraiser; instead an event called Merge & Dine will take its place, with money going directly towards supporting Merge to keep it sustainable, says Aditya Kundalkar, Lifewise communications specialist.

Until the Government put money into Housing First, Lifewise relied solely on donations and grants which were raised through the Big Sleepout so this year, it has decided to focus efforts on Merge.

The Auckland Street Choir will be performing at the dinner and like Merge, there will be a mix of people attending, including those who have been through homelessness and come out the other side.

“We are hoping this dinner will raise funds for Merge and it can be looked after for a year more or longer.”

Click here for tickets to Merge & Dine, Thursday 12 July, AUT City Campus. To support Merge in another way, you can pay it forward or purchase a Merge meal card at the cafe, that can be used by whoever needs it. Direct donations can also be made at www.lifewise.org.nz/donate/.