Credit: Sarah Dalton

Church opens free café in city centre for the homeless and vulnerable 

‘Everyone deserves to be loved, and that shouldn’t come at a price,’ say helpers

ST JOHN the Baptist Church in the city centre has opened up its doors to welcome in Cardiff’s homeless with free food and friendly faces. 

Volunteers at Grace Café go out and invite people living on the streets to enjoy free toast, hot drinks, biscuits and a conversation every Tuesday from 10.30am to 12pm.

The café aims to keep people on the streets fed, while also making them feel accepted and welcome in the community. It is the result of a four-year long project between St John the Baptist Church and Llandaff Cathedral.

Grace Café is held every Tuesday at St John’s the Baptist church in Cardiff City Centre. Credit: Sarah Dalton

“Being a city centre church, we are very close to the street community and some of them literally sit outside our gates,” said the Rev Sarah Jones, the priest at St John’s Church who set up the café. 

“We have teams of five volunteers running the café on a rota each week, and we will go out into the street and invite the homeless community in. It’s no use saying come every Tuesday when some of them have no way of knowing what day of the week it is,” she explained. 

Attendance at the café varies, ranging from six to 12 homeless customers each week with several non-vulnerable visitors passing though.

But for the Rev Jones, the café is about more than just food. 

“Sometimes the homeless community around here recognise me now when I’m out and about and they’ll come and fist-bump me in the street.

“It’s about seeing a friendly face and having that space to talk and feel safe and accepted.” 

Canon Jan van der Lely, Chancellor for Llandaff Cathedral, added: “For a Christian, grace means God’s free love and that’s really what we’re trying to demonstrate at Grace Café. That everyone in this community deserves to be loved and that shouldn’t come at a price.

“Churches exist to serve God’s creation, which includes people and that means all people.”

Grace Café was due to start when the first lockdown hit in March 2020 but because of the pandemic, its doors didn’t open until January 2023.

Despite being held in St John’s Church, volunteers were quick to emphasise that the café is not religious. 

“We don’t preach at people at all, we just sit and chat and provide a safe warm space to meet their needs. Sometimes it can get quite deep,” said Canon van der Lely. 

One homeless customer who came in upset about the death of Darren Moore in Cardiff city centre was given the opportunity to speak to volunteers about how they felt and then asked if they would like to light a candle or say a prayer together. 

“We try to be as sensitive as possible and never force religion on to any of our customers, but I think having a dedicated space to grieve and talk really helped that individual,” the Canon added.

Canon Jan van der Lely, Heather Temple-Williams and Rev Sarah Jones are among just some of the volunteers who run the café. Credit: Sarah Dalton

Since opening six weeks ago, Grace Café has already begun adapting to meet the specific needs of its users.

This includes cutting the crusts off toast and providing soft rolls or crumpet alternatives for those who have poor dental care and weak teeth.

The Rev Jones said: “We’ve had a great response so far, I would love to do this seven days a week if I could. 

“But ultimately, it’s important for us to listen to what people want. We don’t want to be doing this to people and so I think it’s important we better understand the needs of the community first and then we will go from there.” 

The café also has lots of visitors who pass through to see the church building, which has featured in several episodes of BBC’s Doctor Who. 

“We explain to visitors that we’re not selling food or drink but if they want to give a little donation then they’re welcome to, and people will often leave quite a large donation,” explained volunteer Heather Temple-Williams. 

“They’ll pay for a coffee and some toast and sit down at a table alongside these people who they might have seen 200 yards further down the road, sitting on the pavement.”

Homelessness is a term which encompasses many types of precarious living, not just sleeping rough.

Across Wales, the number of households threatened with homelessness in 2022 was 9,228, an increase of 27% from the previous year. The issue of homelessness is particularly rife in Cardiff.

In 2020, 57 rough sleepers were counted on Cardiff’s streets in one single night, compared to 24 in Newport. predicted that the actual figure of rough sleepers in Cardiff that year was closer to 92. No data has been collected on this since 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Grace Café is just one of many warm hubs located around Cardiff. More information about the warm hubs can be found here.