Aberdeen social enterprise helping to end youth homelessness one design at a time turns 20

Julie Wemyss
Julie Wemyss

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Jamie Oliver’s trendy Fifteen restaurant – beamed into our living rooms as part of a docuseries about its creation and the group of socially excluded youngsters whose lives it was trying to transform – has become synonymous with the term social enterprise.

Until the popular chef decided to launch the east London restaurant, taking a group of young people at risk of getting involved in a life of crime and developing addictions and turning them into fully-fledged chefs, social enterprise was a phrase that few had heard of.

But long before the loveable cockney even came up with the idea for Fifteen in 2002, an Aberdeen charity was already blazing a successful trail for operating a business with a social mission. This year Foyer Graphics celebrates 20 years of business – during which it has played its part in helping countless numbers of young people into their own homes and people of all ages into work.

Foyer Graphics is a business of Aberdeen Foyer – an organisation set up in the 1990s to respond to the north-east’s youth homelessness and unemployment problems. The firm has contributed thousands of pounds to the charity over 20 years, making an incredible impact on the wellbeing of those most disadvantaged in the area.

The idea to set up a social enterprise which would reinvest profits into the charity came about when Aberdeen Foyer commissioned its first logo. The designer involved in its creation agreed to take a risk to join the organisation and set up the business – and the rest is history.

“It was a bit of serendipity; a case of being in the right place at the right time,” explained Foyer Graphics manager Julie Wemyss, who has been with the firm for 16 years. “Foyer Graphics was set up before the term social enterprise was ever really widely known, and two decades ago few charities had considered such an approach.

“The board at the time was very forward-thinking and felt this was something that would generate an income for Aberdeen Foyer, while also raising the profile of the work of the charity and exposing it more widely to the public.

“Initially Foyer Graphics was getting work from other charities and housing associations, but we started to expand the portfolio into other sectors and now we work with a very wide range of industries, primarily in the private sector, and in different parts of the country.

“In the early days, we perhaps we didn’t shout very loudly about our USP, that we were a business with a social conscience. That was partly because not many people knew what was meant by the term social enterprise, and partly because we wanted to focus on the fact that we offered a high-quality product and excellent service.

“To us, the fact that we were making profit for good – reinvesting any profit that we made into supporting the social purpose of the charity – was a great add-on. I suspect early on we were also concerned that people would assume because we were a social enterprise, our end product wouldn’t be of a high quality.

“But over time, and perhaps as people became more aware of what a social enterprise was thanks to initiatives like Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, we realised that our social conscience was a side of the business that our customers also felt strongly about.”

As well as providing an income stream for the charity, Foyer Graphics also supports the organisation’s other aims by offering work placements for school pupils, college students and people who receive support from the Foyer.

Some of those who have completed placements with Foyer Graphics have gone on to find jobs within the firm, while the training has given others the confidence and skills to go into further education and secure employment elsewhere.

Aberdeen Foyer works with around 1,600 people in Aberdeen City and Shire every year: some may already be homeless, while others have been identified as being at risk, and many have been out of work, some for long periods of time. Around one-third of all homeless people in the region are aged between 16 and 25 and in the past year there has been a 50% increase in the number of 16 to 17-year-olds who are presenting as homeless in the city.

The charity doesn’t just provide young people with a roof over their heads, but accommodation with support which allows them to become socially and economically independent. They’ll receive support with learning and education, guidance on how to manage their own home and how to budget, and also get advice about training and employment.

Aberdeen Foyer provides a range of health and wellbeing services and as an accredited SQA centre, also offers employability programmes to help people into work. It has both informal and accredited learning and training opportunities which not only allow people to develop essential skills, but helps them to grow in confidence.

Julie added: “Aberdeen Foyer delivers a very diverse package of services to those young people and adults who need it most. Many will have had chaotic and fragile home situations and the hope is that by supporting them as they transition into work, they can have a more positive future.

“The statistics on youth homelessness in the north east are concerning and is the reason why we need to keep attracting customers to ventures like Foyer Graphics. The knock-on impact is that we can help the charity to alleviate the problems experienced by people in our community, and ultimately see a reduction in these figures.

“I’d say that working for Foyer Graphics is different from anywhere else I’ve experienced working. There’s a different kind of pride in the job: yes, there’s a pride in being able to produce a good quality end product for our clients, but also a pride in knowing that you are helping in some small way to make a difference.

“We’re also incredibly proud to have managed to keep going for 20 years and that is in no small part down to the loyalty of our client base. They come back to us time and time again and with their continued support we can go on contributing to the vital work of the Foyer, creating a difference through design.”


In supporting the work of Aberdeen Foyer, Foyer Graphics is helping to transform the lives of people in Aberdeen city and shire who are facing up to the reality of being homeless. Here, some of those who have used the charity’s services but for reasons of confidentiality cannot be identified, talk about their experiences in their own words.

A (18): “I was sleeping rough because I had nowhere to stay. I slept in car parks or in a garage because at least it was dry. I have problems because I have learning difficulties and my family have difficulties too.

“I was using drugs which some people had shown me how to do. It made me feel more like everyone else, like one of the crowd. It got really cold as the winter started and someone told me that I could go to the homeless department at Aberdeen City Council.

“They sent me to the Foyer. For the first time in ages I had somewhere safe and warm to stay. They did lots of things with me like cooking and cleaning. They also helped me to understand that I couldn’t live there if I kept using drugs. They helped me to realise that I used drugs because other people influenced me too much.  I am working really hard now to sort things out and my hope is to go to college.”

D (17): “I used to live with my dad in a one bedroom flat. When he died I was really struggling. I was sofa surfing, self-harming and drinking too much. The first week I was in my flat at the Foyer I developed an action plan where I included all the things I needed help with to become more confident and independent.

“I learned how to budget (I was in debt), learned how to use appliances and addressed my issues with time keeping. I have learned how to complete housing forms and council tax forms and have applied for permanent housing. I’m learning how to cook from fresh and am trying to be more healthy.

“Sessions with the Foyer counsellor are really helping. All in all, since I moved to the Foyer my confidence has grown. I’m able to do most tasks like finding out where to get support to stop smoking, looking for a job or even something as basic as talking on the phone to a stranger. So far my time at the Foyer has been fantastic and I’m a happier. I’m ready to do some training and get a job.”


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