Cascading down from the ceiling is an ornate gold sculpture. Delicate leaves swirl around the middle, with soft light illuminating them from behind. If you look closely there are small engravings on the leaves – words like ‘inspire’ and ‘thrive’. The sculpture is the centerpiece in the hallway of a Grade 1 listed building in Soho. Down the hall from the entrance room people are gathered, socialising and sipping champagne. And down another level, only a few metres away, is Denise cooking.
Denise is on work experience as a commis chef for this London members’ club. What many of the members may not realise is that only a few months ago she was on the verge of homelessness and struggling with alcoholism.
“I was an alcoholic. I’d run away from Essex back to London and left my two daughters. I just couldn’t cope anymore.”
She then moved from place to place until joining Turning Point, a support service that helped her into recovery. Denise adds: “The only way I can describe alcoholism is that it’s a very clever illness, you think that what you’re doing is quite normal, but you’re not actually living, you’re just existing.”
And now she’s at an exclusive members’ club in Soho. Using a knife, she finely chops a chilli before grating the zest of a lemon. She’s making a scotch bonnet sauce to accompany a king prawn platter. A big step up from the stereotypical soup kitchen role associated with homeless people. So how did she manage to get there?
Denise heard about the club from a friend at Turning Point. Called The House of St Barnabas, it runs a 12-week programme designed to help people that have been affected by homelessness get back into lasting paid work. Participants work towards a City and Guilds qualification in either Hospitality or Business Administration. After graduating, they are then provided with a year of progression support focused on getting them into employment.
But Denise is only one of thousands that need to find paid work.
According to Crisis.org, the number of people sleeping rough on any one night across England has doubled since 2010. The main reasons behind this are the cuts to government funding, the rise in immigrants working in minimum wage jobs and a lack of affordable housing.
Gerard Lemos is an expert in homelessness, having researched extensively and written two books on the subject. He believes the solution for homelessness is not through housing at all, but through nurturing people’s aspirations and interests.
“Giving people a job and somewhere to live doesn’t really give them enough to have a good life. It’s about giving them purpose and drive.”
Whilst Lemos questions whether The House of St Barnabas directly gets people off the streets, he believes it is a good way of helping people who are “work ready” back into employment. “I think it’s very creative what they do, they’ve got a lot of flair and originality”, he adds.
And it’s this creative approach to employability that The House of St Barnabas is trying to provide for Denise and other participants. Sandra Schembri is the CEO at The House of St Barnabas, or the “Chief Encouragement Officer” as she likes to be known. “People come to us when they’ve made a decision, they want to get back into work” she explains.
Built in 1679 the House has been around for generations. “It’s a jewel in Soho, it has a warmth to it which is just magical” Schembri says. However the listed property comes with its downfalls: “it’s also increasingly difficult because you can’t change or adapt the building.”
Prior to being a social enterprise, the charity operated as a hostel up until 2006. But the house was old and fell into disrepair. No longer safe for the women inside the decision was made to close it. Schembri emphasises: “You had some women who’d been here a long time so actually moving on was quite scary for them. The transition had to be slow and had to be well managed.” In late 2006 the last regular visitor to the hostel was relocated.
The charity’s aim to help London’s homeless now takes the form of an Employment Academy, integrated with a not-for profit members club. Whilst on the programme, participants will spend their time in personal development learning in the Academy alongside eight hours of work experience in the club per week. The club is operated by Benugo, the House’s hospitality partner, who play a significant role in training the participants whilst they’re on work experience.
That experience could be anything from waitressing, bartending, administration or, in Denise’s case, cooking.
But cooking professionally is only one of Denise’s goals. “The big life plan is to work in the kitchen part-time, and the big, big plan is to write local social history books and become a local historian”, she states.
Critics might accuse schemes like the House of St Barnabas of tokenism but experts from other homelessness charities like Thames Reach and the Cardinal Hume Centre disagree. Jeremy Swain, the Chief Executive of Thames Reach, believes the scheme is a “unique take on homelessness” whilst Cathy Corcoran the Chief Executive of the Cardinal Hume Centre thinks it provides a “positive and motivating” structure for participants.
Back in the kitchen Denise has almost finished preparing the sauce for her dish. The corner of her lips gently twitches into a smile. She says: “I’ve kind of been offered a job, working in the kitchens, so hopefully in another month I’ll be in paid employment.”
Six weeks later…
The sound of people clapping resounds across the Chapel as the last of this year’s graduates mount the stage. Denise had graduated, and secured herself a paid job working for Benugo in the kitchen at The House of St Barnabas.
Wearing a smart black dress with her ash blonde hair straightened in a neat bob, she began a speech. A speech comparing herself to Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady and the similar transformation she has undertaken.
“When Eliza entered Professor Higgins’ house, the fictitious 27a Wimpole Street, it was to change her life forever. Half a mile away and over a century later, Soho Square has done the same for me. Just like Eliza I have found my happy ending.”
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One of the other ways the House of St Barnabas helps to fund the scheme is through its extensive art collection. Click here to see some of the work.
To watch the story of a poet who survived homelessness and addiction click here
To listen to the experts discuss the cause of homelessness and the solution click here
To learn about the current facts and statistics surrounding homelessness click here