Social Justice

An artisan soap maker is giving homeless people jobs and support to turn their lives around

A chance encounter with a woman on the streets led Aaron Probert to create Labre's Hope, which helps people experiencing homelessness.

Aaron Probert (centre) making soap with soap artists.

A chance encounter with a homeless woman inspired a new project that is transforming lives – and is the first of its kind in the UK.

Student Aaron Probert decided to help the rough sleeper by giving her £10 towards temporary accommodation when he passed her on a street in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, one bleak winter’s day.

The gesture moved the woman to share the story of how she came to be on the streets, through a heart-breaking cycle of domestic abuse and turning to alcohol to cope.

“She told me that one day her kidneys failed and she ended up in hospital”, said Aaron.

“The doctors said if she carried on drinking she would have died, so she had to make a decision and ended up on the streets.

“Hearing her story was my first insight into how people can end up being homeless.

“It was truly shocking and I wanted to do something about it.”

That unexpected meeting took place in 2017. Aaron has spent the five years since creating an innovative social enterprise to help people escape the cycle of homelessness through making artisan soaps.

His idea to ‘put the hope in soap’ was initially supported by companies including Amazon but the Covid-19 pandemic set back the plans.

Aaron, now 25, laboriously taught himself how to make hand-poured soap at home during lockdowns and that became the focus.

He said: “Everybody has a daily wash routine so the idea was that while people were looking after themselves they could also look after someone experiencing homelessness.”

Eventually Aaron received the financial support to launch Labre’s Hope, which is named after the patron saint of homeless people, Saint Benedict Joseph Labre.

That included a cash injection of £500,000 from the government’s Community Renewal Fund.

Based in a now vibrantly painted HQ in Rotherham, Labre’s Hope is the first organisation in the UK to support those experiencing homelessness into employment through eco-friendly cosmetic making.

In just four months 11 local homeless people have been employed on a living wage to create the hand-made, biodegradable and vegan soaps in a dedicated workshop.

They have also benefited from support sessions in everything from IT to health and jobs coaching from Labre’s Hope partners Crisis and the South Yorkshire Housing Association. 

One of the first ‘soap artists’ was Christina Brown, who was homeless for 10 months due to previous drug addiction before finding out about the opportunity for employment with Labre’s Hope.

She now hopes to develop leadership skills so she can find a job helping other vulnerable women fleeing violence, domestic or drug abuse.

Christina, speaking at the recent launch of Labre’s artisan soaps, said: “Before I started at Labre’s Hope I didn’t really have much hope.

“When this door opened it was like a light was shining bright. It has been an amazing journey and it is satisfying to make something that you know everyone else is going to enjoy.”

Christina said learning how to create the soaps, as well as accessing the one stop shop of support services, had had benefits far beyond the wage she was paid.

Her confidence and mental health have both improved. 

The 44-year-old added: “I’m ready to take on whatever comes my way because I know I’ve got the support and I’m really happy to have the support and I really need it.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve worked so this is really important for me.”

Labre’s Hope has been backed by local politicians and homelessness causes.

Initially the team is aiming to turn around the lives of some 25 people by getting them into employment.
The long term plan is to become a hub for ending homelesness and help 200 people across South Yorkshire, then expand to cities such as London or Manchester with more products such as bath bombs.

Mayor of Rotherham Tajamal Khan attended the soap launch and said organisations like Labre’s Hope were ever more vital during the cost of living crisis.

He said: “Too many of us take homes for granted. I met a man in town and just a year ago he lived in London, he was on a £100,000 a year job, a detached house, children and a wife. In a year he was left with nothing.”

Aaron, who is co-founder of Labre’s Hope with university pal Joash Nelson-Pierce, added: “It was indescribable when we found out we had been given the funding and could make a tangible difference.

“It’s been a long journey to get here and it is something I will forever be grateful for.”

Money made through the sale of the soaps will go back into the project.

Visit labreshope.co.uk

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