Six years ago, drop-in centers were one of the few places in the D.C. area where Skyler Kelley could shower, do laundry and get a hot meal. As a homeless single mother caring for her infant daughter, she made the most of the resources available to her.
Kelley, 29, is now in her element as she grinds espresso beans, takes latte orders and calls out the names she’s written on each cup. Just one month ago, she became a small business owner with the grand opening of her new coffee shop, Brij Coffeehouse in Crystal City, Virginia.
Kelley opened Brij with one goal in mind — to help folks without stable housing. Proceeds will help fund a drop-in center for queer youth in D.C.
“I knew I wanted to give back, but in order to give back, you need money,” Kelley said. “So I thought to myself, I love coffee, I love people, why don’t I open a coffee shop?”
Kelley grew up experiencing homelessness and spent her late teens and early 20s couch surfing and sleeping in her car with her daughter in Walmart parking lots. She finally secured subsidized housing in 2018. When Kelley’s mom moved in with her, it was the first time either had ever had a stable home.
“It was like everything happened together. It was a dream,” Kelley said.
Kelley had worked barista jobs in the past and always wanted to have her own cafe, but opening her own business seemed out of reach. However, when she lost her hospitality job during the pandemic, she didn’t want to get laid off again. She decided it was time to start working on opening Brij.
“It was a bold move,” Kelley said. “A lot of people thought I was stupid when all these restaurants were closing.”
First, Kelley needed to raise money to help fund her vision. During the pandemic, she started hosting outdoor wine and jazz nights to help local musicians make some extra money. The events were very successful, Kelley said, but got harder during colder months when there were fewer places to host.
Once she got some funding together, she was able to start working toward securing a location and building her brand. She reached out to architectural studio Wood+Starr to find out how much it would cost to get a coffee shop set up. That’s when Matt Starr, co-owner of the firm, connected her with commercial real estate broker Lisa Banusiewicz.
Kelley was determined to open a business that could support her and give back to her community. That enthusiasm was partly what helped her connect with resources and made Banusiewicz and others want to help her.
“Skyler didn’t wait to be perfect to start — she just went all into everything she did,” Banusiewicz said.
“The things that seem small and minor developed her track record as a business owner even if she wasn’t a millionaire CEO in an office. It highlighted her grit and showed that she was capable of showing up and giving her all.”
Banusiewicz connected Kelley with other resources, like the branding company Noted. Banusiewicz and people at Wood+Starr and Noted worked together to help Kelley navigate opening a business without much initial funding, offering low-cost services and connecting her with other resources.
“We started working with her during the pandemic and it was a project everyone felt really good contributing time that we all had,” Banusiewicz said.
Three years later, Brij opened its first location across the street from the Amazon headquarters in Crystal City, Virginia. A second location in Mount Vernon Square is slated to open this winter, Kelley said.
“I’ve experienced homelessness pretty much all my life, and never knew why,” Kelley said. “But I think as I got older, I was like, there’s a reason behind this.”
At first, Kelley wanted to help support single mothers experiencing homelessness like she was when her daughter was young.
However, she realized there was a gap in services for another demographic she cares deeply about — LGBTQ+ people.
“I would just meet so many young homeless queer people throughout my life,” Kelley, who is queer herself, said. Many of those young people didn’t have anywhere to go, she said. “It just really bothered me.”
She plans to partner with the Latin American Youth Center to help fund its drop-in center in D.C., a program that serves many LGBTQ+ youth. Homelessness uniquely impacts the LGBTQ+ community, especially youth, who may not be welcome at home because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Our work is always about creating safe spaces for our youth to be able to come here, and to be able to provide them the resources they need,” said Norma Sorto, communications specialist at the center.
The drop-in center provides access to shower and laundry facilities, three meals a day, case management and computers to work on resumes and do job searches. It’s also focused on connecting youth to housing programs in D.C.
“When I was homeless I had the opportunity to go to a lot of day centers. I didn’t have anywhere to go so I would just have breakfast, I would have a place to have lunch, a place to take a nap, a place to do laundry,” Kelley said. “So that’s what I want to do.”
Proceeds from Brij will go to the drop-in center’s hygiene and emergency clothing closet to help pay for things such as toiletries, t-shirts and underwear, Winstead said.
While the origin of Kelley’s shop is rooted in her past, she’s focused on the future. She said she hopes to open coffee shops in New York and Atlanta and partner with day centers there to employ their clients. Ultimately, she wants to open her own LGBTQ+ housing center to provide a safe space for queer homeless people.
“Housing is a right and we need to stop holding it back from people because we don’t agree with their lifestyle,” Kelley said.