The Pit Stop Community Cafe is nestled in the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s city hustle and bustle with no indication of its existence. But by as early as 3pm, a queue starts outside its premises. At 5.30pm, a strict briefing is given to those in queue, with rules that you must be courteous, you must keep the cafe clean, you are not allowed to waste food and if you are able to, pay as you feel your meal deserves. Then, dinner service begins. Most of them that come in are definitively categorised by their living circumstances. We label them homeless and sometimes, all they are to us is a statistic but here at the Pit Stop Community Cafe, they’re known as “street-friends” or “street-clients”.
Since the cafe started in April, more and more now know to gather here for dinner meals that have the likes of rice porridge, vegetable stew, sweet red bean soup and green bean soup. The volunteers say the most popular dish is the red bean soup simply because people on the streets rarely have the chance to taste something sweet; it’s a treat for them. With operational dinner service daily, the numbers have slowly crept up, from 70 to a consistent group of 200 people each night in just 5 months (this was noted in August). There are children, people who could be your grandparents, uncles and aunties, even young working adults who come for food. It’s hard not to wonder why they’ve ended up here.
One of the founders of Pit Stop Community Cafe is Joycelyn, a 5 foot 6 tall, solidly-built bespectacled lady. When I met her, she was in an analytical state of mind, mid-preparation and organisation of Pit Stop’s Monday night dinner service with her t-shirt sleeves rolled up. On her right arm, there is a tattoo of a gecko (lizard), which she tells me later on that it represents ‘the search for light’ in many cultures. Meeting her and subsequently watching her run the cafe gives you the sense that she’s someone who is whole-heartedly unapologetic and genuinely passionate about what she has found to do with Pit Stop Community Cafe.
But she’s not just a cafe-owner; her roles are intertwined with being a nanny, a caretaker and even a surrogate parent to her street-clients. She describes the experience to be similar to running a kindergarten or a pre-school. They’ve been on the streets for many years, some since their teen years, she explains, and this causes them to undergo a form of arrested development. When people become homeless at a young age, everything that happens subsequently becomes about survival on the streets. Personal maturity and educational growth becomes an unexperienced privilege. So she stands in the gap of being carers for her street-friends.
In my conversation with her, it’s clear that she has put many hours of thought and self-reflection that have led her here. She previously worked in corporate jobs that she described as comfortable. “I came to a point of asking myself, is this all there is to life? What is it that really matters?” Well, people matter; family and community matter, she says in reflection. But what are you really doing about it? “I don’t want to just exist,” she continues. “I look at the line and sometimes I see, that could be my grandfather, my mother, my father, an uncle, an aunty, a blood relative. And there is a part of me that will not let someone suffer or let someone go hungry, if I can help it.”
The idea of the cafe is the evolution of the idea from Project Tikar. Project Tikar is a project that was birthed to provide tikar (rattan mats) to the homeless in KL. The tikar, Joycelyn tells me, means that a homeless person will not have to sleep on cold concrete that night. It will mean a better night’s rest without water seeping through their cardboard beds. It will mean that they have an extra layer of comfort. But after many nights of Project Tikar, she started to think that surely that wasn’t enough to help, so she gathered a group of like-minded friends and they decided to start the Pit Stop Community Cafe.
The cafe runs on the vision to love all and feed all but the reward is not merely the satisfaction of giving someone food. It is the form of care, consideration and connection that is sourced from the pure act of providing meals for those in need. “I see an old person holding a hot bowl of tong sui with a smile because it gives them nostalgia. They remember the better times in a day that they have been walking and are tired. But with that bowl of tong sui, there’s a little bit of happy, and I’m good.”
The bigger picture of what the cafe is boils down to these three values: refuel, retrain and reintegrate. These values are embedded in its name - Pit Stop - a place where people are able to be nourished by food and empowered by purpose. Beyond dinner service, the cafe also runs training workshops and English classes for those who want to learn, and they provide job opportunities for those who are willing. Joycelyn’s dream is that this cafe will eventually be self-sustainable and for those who have been formerly homeless to help others who are homeless get off the streets and be reintegrated into society through these values.
There is no surprise that the heart of Pit Stop Community Cafe traces the roots of our own Malaysian food culture. Some of the most common conversation-starters we hear everyday begins with the topic of food: Have you eaten? Dah makan? Chiak pa buay? We have a natural ability to come together, share a meal and round-up some of the best conversations we will ever have in our lifetimes. Yet, the number of people who are at a loss of this luxury is an increasing statistic. So Pit Stop Community Cafe brings this back to the people who need it the most. As YC, a staff at the cafe says, “it’s about second chances to have a family again. It doesn't matter what they have done that got them to where they’re at. You just help because they need hope.”
As the day winds down after dinner service, the team sits together and has their share of dinner. That evening, as I interviewed Joycelyn, they were having a competition to eat fried sago worms. Their enthusiastic chants and shouts rose above the noise of peak hour traffic and drawn-out honks. There is no mistaking the kind of madness that can take place when you are with people you are able to truly have fun with. So amid the buzzing sounds of a saturated city, the team who make Pit Stop Community cafe happen each night exemplified exactly what they give to their street-friends and ultimately earn in return, and that is community.