As venues start to open up again, the CEO of the House of St Barnabas gives her reflections on what has been a roller-coaster year, defined by continuing to support people experiencing homelessness, and looking ahead to the post-pandemic future:
The House of St Barnabas is a social enterprise and charity that works to support people affected by homelessness back into long-term employment. Our vision is of a future where lasting good work, a secure home and a supportive network are a reality for those affected by homelessness.
Underpinned by our vibrant social enterprise members’ club in Soho, our Employment Academy provides onsite employment and skills training for people who have experienced homelessness. This is followed by 12 months of progression support to enable sustained change and impact including mentoring, housing support and in-work progression support.
In March 2020, we had to shut our doors to our community; including members and participants in our Employment Preparation Programmes. As the lockdown progressed and the crisis deepened, our income declined by 40% and we saw the closure of several other members’ clubs and hospitality businesses in Soho. We were determined that this wouldn’t be us.
During the pandemic, we experienced the retreat of essential services; GP appointments were scarce, housing and benefits departments scaled back, and foodbanks were overwhelmed. Graduates from our Employment Academy experienced sudden job losses, furlough on insecure income and anxiety about losing their homes. And, we saw the digital divide get much wider and deeper overnight. Our graduates told us they felt disconnected from the practical support they needed but also from the critical emotional connection that many of us relied on with family and friends online.
Despite having to shut our doors, we did not stop our work with participants and graduates. We worked intensively throughout the last 12-months to make sure that nobody was left behind. Our Employment Academy team were in contact with over 100 people who had previously completed one of our programmes, to provide practical support and a listening ear. We also gave extra support to 40 Barnabas graduates who experienced multiple serious challenges including financial hardship, anxiety related directly to COVID-19, loneliness and isolation, mental health crises, benefits complexity, and housing challenges. For some, this included their housing arrangements breaking down completely – we supported their move into secure homes. For others, who previously used public services like libraries to access the Internet, they found themselves cut off from friends, family and connection which impacted their mental health. We helped provide hardware and support to get them online. Elsewhere, we connected people with local food banks and food charities. For many, their income changed due to furlough or job loss, which caused additional complexities in making benefits claims. Our team supported them to navigate the system – which was especially challenging for many who didn’t have their own access to a computer or the Internet. Without this support it is likely that some people would’ve once again become homeless.
In October 2020, we were able to successfully deliver our 17th Employment Preparation Programme, face to face in the House, in a way that was Covid-secure and effective for everyone involved. And now, we’ve just launched our 18th Employment Preparation Programme at the House. We’ve welcomed a new group of participants through our doors and are excited to kick start our in-House work experience where each participant will be shadowing Barnabas’ very own team members in both hospitality and office roles. Upcoming highlights of this Spring’s programme also include: an engagement session on Barnabas’ GAIKA exhibition, and an exciting training session provided by our fantastic Coffee suppliers Extract Coffee – focusing on the history of coffee with a talk on how they grew their business.
The year has been a rollercoaster for the social business too. We separated from our former hospitality partner to whom we outsourced our food, beverage and service during the first lockdown as the reality of the financial challenges ahead became apparent, and our Trustees made the brave decision to take our hospitality in-house. While many of our fabulous members stuck with us through the pandemic and continued to pay to support our impact, our earned income across the business reduced by over 40%. There were several existential points in the year at which we questioned whether we would make it through, but this really focused us on our social purpose and whether we believed there would be a need for our mission and a demand for our offer on the other side. We concluded that we would be needed more than ever, and took the necessary measures to ensure we would still be here, including taking on a Government-backed loan and sadly making significant redundancies in our team.
But we made it through. And we are now back open! We’ve been welcoming members’ back to our Garden (the largest private garden in Soho!) since April 12th, and this week we’ve welcomed members’ back inside our Grade I listed House! We’ve been blown away by the support that our community has shown us during this time, our Garden has been busy and buzzing since April 12th, and the atmosphere as people have reconnected has been better than we could have imagined.
In 2020, we were supported by Liberty London to give some of the rooms in the House a facelift, and we’re excited to welcome members, private hire clients and our whole community back to these spaces for work and play. We’ve got an exciting line up of new and resident DJs programmed to play across our Spring and Summer Music series. We will soon announce exciting live acts to play from our Chapel and events to help members reconnect with faces old and new.
We know that our work to support people affected by homelessness into good work, a good home and to build good networks is more vital than ever. We’re committed to supporting more people to do this. We know that without good work, it’s easy to slip back into unstable situations that can lead to homelessness, the Covid-19 pandemic has served to highlight this. We also know that people who have experienced homelessness and train with our Employment Academy do not want our charity or pity; they want to work, build stable lives for themselves and give back to our society and economy. We want to work with more employers to ensure that their employment practice supports individuals to rebuild their dignity and break the cycle of homelessness, not plunge them deeper into poverty. It is this which is our driving force, and which our social enterprise members’ club is built to serve. We emerge from the pandemic brave, resilient, committed to our social purpose and ready to hit our dancefloor when restrictions allow.