House Of St Barnabas' CEO, Sandra Schembri, On How A Private Members' Club Is Helping The Homeless

Women In Business: How This Private Members' Club Is Helping The Homeless Get Back On Track

From the word go, you know Sandra Schembri means business.

Behind her infectious laugh and assertive tone, there's a woman underneath who knows what she wants and fights for it.

She also happens to have dedicated a lot of her time and energy over the years into building and developing supportive communities that help others - the House of St Barnabas members' club is just one of them.

Schembri is CEO of the House which has, in recent years, become the first ever not-for-profit members' club, where proceeds raised by member fees are pumped straight back into the charity.

Their aim: to break the cycle surrounding homelessness.

It's a fairly unique situation, as the club is staffed by homeless people who are going through hospitality training in the House's Employment Academy, as well as mentors. But both groups of people dress the same and act the same, so from an outsider looking in, it's just like any other establishment.

While it might seem like a strange concept having both the incredibly wealthy and homeless under one roof, Schembri insists it's a formula that works - and has done so for six years.

The 39-year-old, who has a background in music and charity work, describes herself as a "Jack of all trades" and it's clear to see that her ethos to help out and get stuck-in has helped to steer this particular charity - and its able students - to where they are today.

We caught up with Schembri to find out what it takes to get London's homeless back on their feet...

What does House of St Barnabas do?

Our mission is to support people back into sustainable work. We work with organisations such as Crisis and St Mungo's Broadway. They will often refer people to us who are already on their journey back towards independence. These people are usually off the streets, living in temporary accommodation such as hostels, and their next stage is moving into the world of work.

Our 12-week programme is like a new start for them and involves work experience here at the club and with the club's partners, an awful lot of personal development and coaching in terms of interview practice, as well as being put in touch with potential employers.

But really, the key to their success is in our post-programme support as we have this fantastic range of mentors - mostly from our membership base - who agree to support these people after they've graduated for a year at the very least.

These people leave the House with work experience and a qualification, as well as mentoring and support, in the hope that they'll find full-time employment.

What inspired the idea?

I’d love to say it was all mine, but it wasn’t.

The charity, House of St Barnabas, already existed and was helping homeless people while inhabiting a beautiful building in the heart of Soho.

The new model for House of St Barnabas was born through two women I worked with when I was a charity consultant. They ran a company called Quintessentially Events and were looking for a physical manifestation of the brand.

I was introduced to the house through them and just kind of fell in love with it. I quickly realised that this was something that really spoke to me and was something that I really wanted to be a part of.

What was the biggest challenge setting up the private members' club?

Our biggest challenge was balancing an inclusive charity with what was perceived as an exclusive model of a member’s club.

It's a constant balancing act, I've been involved with this for nearly six years, and every day you are having to balance that idea of how to make it work.

But a club, if done well, is a community rather than an exclusive group. Ours is a growing community and it's flourishing outside of our four walls too.

What’s the most inspiring personal story to come from someone you’ve helped?

A gentleman we worked with, prior to him being referred to us, had been a heroin addict for over 35 years.

He said that he'd woken up one day, realised that most of his friends were dead, and decided that he didn't want to be on his own. Enough was enough, he said. He had to change his life.

He was referred to us by another charity and the first thing he said when he walked into the House was: "Is this slave labour? Have you got me doing free work so that those guys can drink posh champagne?"

I replied and said: "No, that's not the model. That's not what it's about."

Anyway, he was very cynical so I told him to give me a week so that we could show him what we're all about and if he still didn't like what we were doing by the end of it, then it wasn't a problem. He could leave.

By day three, he came back to me saying that he was 100% behind us.

He said that he had forgotten what it was like to be in the type of environment where there's potential or opportunity or hope.

He then went on to absolutely fly through the programme and the biggest success for us was that he reengaged with his daughter, who had been estranged from him for many years. He also found out that he had a grandchild and now he lives near to them both.

It's great because he did all the work, he made the decision that it was time to change and got the help he needed. I have a lot of respect for him.

Why is it important for you to help others?

I just think it’s the right thing to do.

We are biologically programmed to work in groups and teams and communities - the individual streak isn't part of human nature.

I feel better doing this work and the people around me feel better doing this work, which means we do more of it and help more people. There's this lovely, positive cycle.

And if you can work every day and you're trying to make the world a better place, then that's a fantastically privileged place to be in.

And if there was one thing you could change in the world, what would it be?

On a very practical level, I'd say the living wage.

And on a higher level than that, it would be to remind people that they each have the power to make change happen, because even small changes in their working culture can help them.

Rules are made by people, and people have the power to change them.

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Can you describe a day in your life…

My day usually starts at about 6-6.30am - if I don't oversleep my alarm - and breakfast is usually porridge or eggs.

I'd love to say I'm a gym bunny. I've tried for so many years to be one and I'm really not. I try and fit yoga in twice a week to help me be more bendy, but I can't even touch my toes yet. Although I'm getting there!

Work really is about as varied as you get. No two days are the same and my diary is always choc-a-block because I'm meeting new people. It really is one of the best jobs because it's all about people, people, people.

Usually breakfast, lunch and dinner will be at the club as it's a great way to engage with new people.

And then in the evening I'll go home to my new husband, try and relax and have a glass of wine and some dinner (if I haven't already eaten at the club).

How do you manage your work/life balance?

Well I used to try and manage it, but then actually I realised that it’s not about managing it. It's all about understanding how I work and what I give to the job and what I expect in return.

I've found that morphing work and life has really helped, so actually if I start late or finish late, I can navigate the waters and compromise elsewhere.

I know for some people it's easier to compartmentalise work and life. But for me, I tried to do that and it made me quite stressed.

When I first started this job I was overworking and driving everyone else mad because I was working until 3am in the morning and then my colleagues were receiving emails and thinking 'oh dear god, all this work is being created outside of hours'.

I had to really get my work life in check so they could be more responsive in their jobs.

That was a really big mental shift for me. So in the last six to eight months I've made an effort to do work that has a knock-on effect on others within work hours only.

Finally, what tips do you have for others who might be considering working for a charity or setting one up?

Don’t do it because you want to save people.

Working for a charity or setting one up isn't about saving souls. We are the servants of those that we work for and are supporting them on their journey, which is a participatory journey.

It isn't just about us helping the deserving poor.

My concern with some organisations is that that's what people feel that charity is all about. And it isn't.

Charity is in the business of helping people. It's a very serious business, but it has great dividends.