Howell’s School, Llandaff alumna on mentoring and training Cardiff’s homeless population.
“I spent two years saying, ‘Somebody needs to do something about this!’, then realised that somebody was me.” Chloe Smith’s lightbulb moment came after she had been supporting the homeless population in her hometown of Cardiff for two years, volunteering at a soup kitchen and persuading local restaurants to deliver hot meals and barbers and hairdressers to provide haircuts to rough sleepers.
The Howell’s School alumna was one of dozens of volunteers providing a nightly service, taking a nightshift every four weeks to deliver support to the city’s homeless population. She explains, “I left Howell’s in 2013, and went to the University of South Wales to train to teach primary school, but I got really poorly in my second year with fibromyalgia, which is joint and muscle pain. I came to the conclusion I wasn’t well enough to keep going. I couldn’t carry the books, couldn’t stand up all day, and I made the decision overnight to leave, I was only nine months away from qualifying, but I knew it wasn’t right for me. I left, and I trained to be a very average graphic designer, working for my Dad’s company. I felt I needed to do something else, and began volunteering with a group supporting the homeless people sleeping on the streets in Cardiff.
“My dad and I did that for two years, and found that we kept seeing the same faces, hearing the same stories. We wanted to make longlasting change. It felt like every month we were going and putting a plaster on the problem, and then going back the next month and changing the plaster and nothing got better. We weren’t creating a change to help people move forward to turn their lives around.”
At the time, Chloe’s sister, also a former Howell’s student, was working at The House of St Barnabas, a private members’ club in London that has the vision “to create a future where sustained employment is a reality for those affected by homelessness”. The club runs a scheme in which participants work in the club, in hospitality and administrative roles, alongside attending workshops, before graduating with a City and Guilds qualification. “We loved the concept of giving people skills and the opportunity to make a change for themselves,” Chloe explains. “We knew that a members’ club wouldn’t work in Cardiff, and we came up with the idea of a coffee shop.
“I spent two years saying, ‘Somebody needs to do something about this!’, then realised that somebody was me.”
The people at The House of St Barnabas were really generous with their time; they helped us with interview processes, with recruitment, and they are still really supportive now.” The Bigmoose coffee shop opened in 2018, just off the main pedestrianised shopping street in Cardiff’s city centre. Today it’s all whitewashed bricks, artfully scuffed furniture and an Instagramready plant wall, but when Chloe first looked at the building it had recently been a dingy gambling arcade, with mirrored walls and grotty, stained carpets. There was a lot of work to be done, and very little budget to do it with. An online Kickstarter fundraising campaign yielded £30,000 in a week: enough to renovate the space, and also buy a van which could be converted into a mobile Bigmoose coffee shop, which Chloe’s father now drives to festivals and sporting events.
“We have been open since March 2018, and we now have a fully operational coffee shop and event space employing 22 staff. We employ, train and mentor people who have experienced homelessness and other disadvantaged, vulnerable people. People who have struggled with their mental health can come to us for support, and when they are ready we give them barista training and career mentoring. Sometimes it can be hard to get people to understand that they need to be at a certain stage before they will be ready for work, before we can help them. We have a counsellor, Graeme, who works with us, providing support and a safe space to anyone who needs it. At the moment we’re working with one young person who has experienced lots of addictions. They are not ready to start work yet, but we are working hard to get to that stage.
“We became a registered charity last year, and our three point plan is: Homelessness, Mental Health and the Prevention of Suicide. We have a lot of people on the team with severe mental health issues, and three people have said to me that they would not be here if it wasn’t for us. That’s why I do what I do. “It’s a lot of pressure on the 26th of the month to pay 22 members of staff, 22 people who are relying on us to pay their rent, take care of their kids and so on. It’s a big responsibility, but I wouldn’t change it. I can’t imagine working for someone else or having a normal job.”