House of St Barnabas CEO Sandra Schembri On Why You Shouldn’t Just Care About Homelessness At Christmas

Christmas can be a particularly difficult time for homeless people. Not only is the weather bitterly cold, but the holiday season is associated with family and joy, meaning loneliness is ever-present.

Knowing this, many of us look to support homeless charities throughout December, which, of course, is a good thing. But Sandra Schembri, CEO of The House of St Barnabas, wants to remind the nation to keep the issue of homelessness on the agenda all year round. 

“Homelessness does not care who you are or what time of year it is,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“Not having a home impacts a person in so many ways beyond the physical. How can you build a life without a secure base to build from?

“Recorded levels of homelessness have never been higher and the profile of who is homeless and why is changing. The loss of a private rented tenancy is now the leading cause across the country, and in London this is an acute problem.”

Sandra Schembri

The House of St Barnabas continues to tackle homelessness through its innovative programme, helping those who have fallen on hard times regain the confidence and skills needed to find employment.

The social enterprise runs a not-for-profit private members club, which offers homeless people placements on a three-month employment programme in areas such as hospitality skills and business administration. 

Profits from the members club are reinvested in the Employment Academy, allowing graduates to access a mentoring support service for a further year after their placement ends. 

“Homelessness is a crisis unfolding in front of us and we all need to work together all year round to address it in the places that we have influence over,” Sandra says.

Ahead of Christmas, we spoke to the CEO for our regular feature ‘Fierce’ about her motivations, proudest moments and how she looks after herself while helping others. 

What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning and keep pushing forward?

“The people I have the privilege of working with on a daily basis, seeing their passion and commitment to improve the world in all the small places they are able to impact is humbling. Some of the solutions that they come up with are just ingenious. We are a lucky organisation to have such an amazing, talented group in our team. 

“And my two-year-old daughter. When she smiles at me in the morning it is like drinking in pure sunshine. I want her to see that mummy is trying to do all that she can with what she’s got at her disposal, to leave the world a slightly better place than she found it.”

 What was the last thing you did that made you proud?

“Attending the graduation of our Employment Preparation Programme and hearing our graduates tell us all in their words, songs and poems what their future now looks like.

“To be able to play even my tiny part in helping others see a brighter future for themselves, I won’t lie, it brought a tear to my eye.”

Who inspires you and why?

“I am like a sponge for people’s passions, I soak up their enthusiasm and knowledge. To name a few people: everyone involved with the Women’s Equality Party and in particular the amazing Sandi Toksvig.

“Sergio Veria De Mello, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a man who was described ‘as a monument to the best of the UN and what civil servants can do’.

“Our participants and graduates – homelessness does not care who you are. We are all vulnerable to finding ourselves in need for many reasons beyond our control. Those we work to support daily remind me that if they can get up every day and try that little bit harder with the amount of complexity they are dealing with in their lives, then come on Sandra, step up. ”

How do you think society views ambitious or successful women?

“I think we are at a tipping point of women being able to be themselves in leadership roles and not having to emulate the command and control leadership style of the not-too-distant past.

“I think we all benefit from this shift and I am so happy to see so much writing in the mainstream media, not just about the societal constructs that impact women, but also the societal constructs around masculinity and how they both no longer serve us. We need a balance of ambition with self-doubt.

“Many of the women I mentor suffer crippling self-doubt. We need to allow leaders to show self-doubt and see it as a strength. So, what next? I think we are at an exciting time of change but we still need to see more difference in how we define success.”

Does success have a downside? If so, what is it? 

“In this work, it is ‘seeing behind the curtain’. I cannot un-see the complexity that exists in the world and I do not wish to.”

How do you practise self-care and why is it important?

“I do now. About five years ago, not so much, except from dancing with friends (when I didn’t blow them off for a work event). I love a staycation, getting to know London again, visiting galleries, going to shows on my own so I can get lost in them.

“I now take the time when I need to and I have digital ‘time outs’ – sometimes a whole weekend. There will always be another email. There will always be more work to do. Say ’yes’ to your friends and family. Send your friends cards, just because. Compliment a random stranger once a day. This will feed you more than you realise.”

What’s your biggest regret? And what did you learn from it?

“I stopped listening to my instincts. Actually, I didn’t just stop, I ignored wilfully the truth of the situation and then contorted the information I was getting to suit the story I wanted to receive.

“I trusted the words being said rather than listening, observing and taking in all the other methods of communication open to us. Language is so flawed and such a simplistic way of trying to get others to understand our complexity. It is no surprise that we misunderstand each other so often, especially when we do not take the time or give the time to learn about ourselves.

“I have a love/hate relationship with Twitter for this. The concise nature of a tweet can help cut through the waffle and get to the heart of an issue, but it can also be a blunt instrument causing destruction and creating division where it needn’t be.”

If you had one piece of advice for other women, what would it be?

“Spend the time to find out who you are and be that 100%. It sounds easy but this is the work of a life lived well. Some of us are born lucky and get a head start here with loving and nurturing caregivers and families around us, allowing us to experiment. Others are fighting just to survive so this work may come later.

“I’ve found that I have changed quite a lot as each decade passes so I really check in with myself to see who I am now. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is necessarily fun work though. It’s necessary but I have to also be prepared for accepting my flaws – and they seem to multiply, or rather my ability to recognise them multiplies.”

What’s the one thing you would change or do in 2018 to push women forward?

Get the conversation about ‘family’ and what it means to us all, not just women, on the table with all employers. Allow honest conversations to take place and build in the flexibility for someone not to have to choose between work they love or the family they want to be a part of. Let’s make it an ‘and/and’ conversation rather than an ‘either/or’.” 

The House of St Barnabas is currently looking for new members to join its private members club. If you are interested you can apply online now.

Fierce is a regular feature on HuffPost UK, asking trailblazing women what drives them. We’ll be speaking to a range of women including those who’ve found success in male-dominated industries, created a service to help other women and those using their position to empower others.