Aroundtown Meets Labre’s Hope

The overwhelming smell of patchouli and lavender in the air tells us we’re in the right place. But we could never have anticipated the impact of stepping through this unassuming door on a back street in Parkgate.

Like Alice being lured down the rabbit hole, we follow our noses and wind up in some sort of wonderland of colour and scent. But there’s nothing nonsensical about it.

We’re at the home of Labre’s Hope, a community interest company that has a pragmatic solution to ending homelessness – one bar of ethically made soap at a time.

The founders behind Labre’s Hope are revolutionary risk takers, willing to give people a chance of a clean slate when others have washed their hands of them. Two young lads still in their early twenties, Aaron Probert and Joash Nelson Piercy could teach us all a thing or two about compassion.

Their soapmaking workforce have all experienced homelessness and its cyclical relationship with employment. They’ve previously been considered unemployable, overlooked for jobs due to having no fixed address, scant work history and gaps in their CV.

“We’re seen as outliers, broken pieces that can’t fit together. Everyone is a unique piece, but not everyone fits the puzzle. It doesn’t mean we’re useless,” says employee Danny, who has recently been promoted to trainee manager.

Personal crisis is often cited as the reason for someone ending up homeless, but entrenched stereotypes mean people facing homelessness are written off as lacking the capacity, skills or knowledge needed to work.

Nobody should be denied reaching their full potential because they don’t have a home. People like Danny have a hunger to turn things around and a determination to prove others wrong. They might not seem like the right candidate on paper, but by holding someone’s past against them employers don’t realise the talent they’re missing out on.

Labre’s Hope is a place for growth, creating a community that is moving onward. Since opening for business in February, Aaron and Joash have already seen a huge change in the confidence of their staff.

“The transformation has been phenomenal,” Aaron says. “There were some people who barely said a word on day one and a month later we couldn’t shut them up. We wanted the workshop to be an informal, happy no-pressure environment to help those who have been away from the labour market for a long time realise that work doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating.”

Aaron and Joash worked hard to convert the 12,000 square-foot building into somewhere welcoming and motivating. Stark, white walls have been given a vibrant makeover, with bright colours and a bold mural adoring the office space and workshop. There’s even a cool coffee bar breakout area downstairs that has a buzz of laughter in the air.

As we’re taken on a tour of the rabbit warren-esque building, one thing is clear: everyone who steps through the door is happy to be there. Maybe it’s the joyous surroundings, but the more we talk the clearer it becomes that employees at Labre’s Hope are actively encouraged to work on themselves while at work to recover from any trauma and rebuild their confidence.

Alongside offering stable employment and National Living Wage salaries, Labre’s Hope have partnered with external organisations Crisis and South Yorkshire Housing Association to provide wraparound workplace and wellbeing sessions to all staff. Joash is responsible for managing these sessions that cover everything from IT skills to job coaching and healthy living in a bid to help staff leave homelessness behind for good.

There are currently six full-time soapers at Labre’s Hope, as well as three part-time staff who are employed solely to take part in the employment and life skills sessions. So far, the business has provided employment for 14 people; many of the full-time staff have been there since the beginning and plan to remain at Labre’s Hope, while others have used it as a stepping stone to finding other work.

Whatever path someone is on, the job is theirs if they want it – no questions asked.

“Other people have tried to do something similar but did it wrong. Aaron has done it incredibly right. There’s no pretence with him. He’s done all this with a bottomless heart but also a business mind. He’s very analytical and is always looking at how he can make the company thrive so it makes money to sustain these roles,” Danny says.

Aaron Probert, founder of Labre’s Hope

The idea for the business started when Aaron and Joash met at Sheffield University. In his second year of studies, Aaron chanced across a homeless woman who told him about how she ended up on the streets after making the decision to leave behind a life of domestic violence and alcoholism. He then wrote his dissertation on how to use business to improve homelessness.

Aaron had also been part of the Enactus Society, a student-led social enterprise that focuses on developing projects to solve worldwide issues.

“I joined on a whim but ended up loving it more than my degree. I didn’t realise you could make a career out of helping people, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life. In April, I was invited to be a keynote speaker at the Enactus event in London and I took our staff along with me. It was a very surreal moment and felt like I’d come full circle. It’s been a remarkable year with an awesome group of people.”

A £500,000 grant from the UK Community Renewal Fund, as well as funding from the South Yorkshire Combined Mayoral Authority, enabled them to launch the business at the end of last year.

As a self-confessed skincare nerd, Aaron chose soap as everyone has a daily wash routine so it is something that everyone can buy. He taught himself how to formulate soaps and scents during the Covid lockdown, trialling up to 20 variations of a blend of essential oils until he became somewhat nose blind.

The Labre’s Hope range of soaps has five scents to choose from, with each ingredient chosen for its scientific and therapeutic benefits. As well as being kind to skin with no harsh chemicals or colourants, the vegan products are also kind to the planet with no palm oil or plastic.

Soap is made using a hot process and the vast workshop is set up like a laboratory with apparatus and equipment galore. When we visited, the team were busy working on a mental health first aid qualification, but Aaron tells us there are usually three people making soap, two cutting and packaging the bars and one – usually him – sending out the orders.

“We’ve had a few hiccups since we started but it’s generally been because people have their own traumas to deal with and it’s been the wrong time for them. They see a mountain in front of them and a job is the last thing they need or want,” Aaron says.

But when it is the right time, people who have experienced homelessness can make hugely positive contributions to businesses and society. Three of the soapers shared their own personal stories with us about the obstacles they’ve faced and why grabbing this opportunity with both hands has been life changing.

Ben Labre's Hope
Ben, a full-time soaper at Labre’s Hope

Before starting at Labre’s Hope in February, Ben had been fruitlessly searching for jobs despite having a degree in Criminology. He found himself homeless after university when moving back in with his parents in Essex was no longer an option. He slept in his car and on friends’ sofas and kitchen floors, but no fixed address meant there was no proof he existed so he couldn’t see a doctor when unwell or apply for Universal Credit.

Some university mates moved to Sheffield and invited him to stay for a few months while he got sorted. Then Covid hit and he was trapped. When restrictions were eventually lifted, his temporary housemates decided they needed their space back. Ben was put in touch with Crisis who found him a flat, but he needed a job to sustain it. He was applying for jobs for a year before Crisis told him about the role at Labre’s Hope.

“Aaron is a very unique person – I’ve never met anyone like him and was blown away by his ethos. He was clear from the start that if you stay forever, good. If it gets you on your feet and you leave after six months, fine.

“It’s not been a perfect journey but most importantly for me I’ve been able to work through any difficulties which wouldn’t happen at any other job. I’ve taken the time to work on my mental health and am now capable of dealing with it. If my depression cycles round again, it’s not the end of the world.

“The world would be a much different place if all companies were run the same as this one.”

Homelessness should not be a life sentence and Labre’s Hope reminds us that everyone deserves a chance to thrive. Ricky was threatened with homelessness after a relationship breakdown and told it would be at least 18 months before he could be rehoused in a council property owing to the pandemic fuelled backlog. But thanks to the Labre’s Hope team, he has been able to move into more permanent accommodation and now has the funds to finance a van.

The team are also helping Ricky look at how he can finally achieve his long-term career goals of working as a rope access technician to complement his rock climbing hobby. But he was initially dubious when he found out about the job.

“When Crisis said there was a job making soap, I said no at first. But then I thought it might help me out and I’m glad I got pointed in this direction. I’ve got anxiety disorder and bipolar and it’s been hard to get or keep a job if I mentioned that as most places shut the door on you, so I kept it a secret for a lot of years.

“But it’s so different here. They support you to deal with your mental health. I’ve built my confidence and got structure back in my life.”

Every time someone buys a soap made at Labre’s Hope, they’re giving hope to people who understand what hard work means – and how precarious life can be.

Danny Labre's Hope
Danny, trainee manager at Labre’s Hope

Trainee manager Danny is one of those people who make you realise we’re all one decision away from a totally different life. In December 2019, his marriage broke down which led to him losing his home, money and well-paid job as an electrical engineer. He went into self-destruct mode and spent any savings he had on alcohol, neglecting his body until he weighed just eight stone.

For the majority of the Covid lockdown he slept in someone’s shed and believed the best way to get out of his situation and have a bed for the night was to be promiscuous. This led to him fathering a child which would be the wake up call he needed to get his life back on track.

Danny says he started to eat right, got help from Barnsley Council’s mental health team and began seeing a psychotherapist to help him address his PTSD and panic disorder that had been caused by his marriage breakdown. He was put in touch with Crisis who told him about the job at Labre’s Hope.

“I was used to working alone in both physically and intellectually demanding jobs and always preferred the physical jobs as mental demands quickly lead to burnout for me. I thought soap making would be mind numbing, but I found it actually suited my skills and personality. I like to work out the scent formulas as I go and I’m not on the same level as Aaron but I soon realised I knew enough to get things right which was reassuring.”

We watch on as he gets his colleagues working through their current workbook and it’s clear to see why Danny has since been promoted to trainee manager. His mindset and approach are as remarkable as his contribution to reorganising all the workshop to make processes more efficient. Not bad for someone who left school with no GCSEs.

“For so long I’d been a caricature of myself, putting on an act as a defence mechanism for my social anxiety. But once I became comfortable with the surroundings and people, it was easy to just be me. I realised I was able to teach people in a way that explains and shows them how or why we do something a certain way without dictating to them – even if they need showing 20 times. And I’ve seen improvements in everyone in the team, so I think it’s important to give credit where it’s due. We’re a mix of people that shouldn’t work but we do.”

Labre's Hope team

The entire workforce has truly benefitted from Aaron and Joash’s visionary leadership. But that appreciation is reciprocated – Labre’s Hope is lucky to have the staff it does.

Ben was right, if only all companies were run like this one.

They’re giving so much to the community but they need a little help in return which is where we, the public, come along. This winter, they will begin their crowd funding appeal to protect the future of Labre’s Hope. But the easiest way to help is by buying a bar of soap or one of their new myrrh and tonka candles launching especially for the festive period. Whether it’s a stocking filler for family or friends or a treat for yourself, your purchase will mean the Labre’s Hope team can continue putting the hope in soap.