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Homelessness: Making a bed for the night, literally

21 January 2009

Emmaus communities offer shelter, work, and support to homeless people. In the run-up to Homelessness Sunday, Brian Draper visited the St Albans community to find out how it is done

IN A DARKENED room of a rambling old house, a man with a small beard and a big smile beams in the reflected glow of his computer. In the corner, placed regally on a white dust-sheet and lit like a model in a fashion shoot, sits a pristine 1905 Edwardian drop-arm sofa. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” whispers Lewi, a resident (known as a “companion”) at the Emmaus com­munity in St Albans.

It is, indeed, stunning. And it is one of the reasons why this community of 23 formerly homeless people and six full-time staff now manages to be entirely self-sufficient.

Lewi is responsible for selling furniture — gathered and restored by other Emmaus com­panions in the community’s workshop — online, on eBay.

“I work 60 hours a week sometimes. I love it,” he says enthusiastically. “I don’t have to work that long, but I do. I was up at 3 a.m. checking the website last night, in case anyone had been bidding. I can’t help it.”

When bidding closes, he hopes to have raised more than £300 for this sofa. “There could be a last-minute frenzy,” he says. “I don’t get to keep any of the money, but it pays for me and my companions to stay here, and that’s what matters. This sofa may even fund a week’s food bill, if we’re lucky.”

THE Emmaus community at St Albans is one of 17 centres of this kind for the homeless in the UK. Another 14 are in the pipeline. No two centres are exactly the same, but the shared ethos is to provide a safe place where previously homeless people can live and become self-supporting again.

In addition to Lewi’s online outlet, the St Albans community has two shops: one at its main building (a former accom­modation block for nurses which was converted after a hospital in the area closed), and one at Bat-ford.

In the main store, an impressive range of sofas, chairs, tables, beds, and miscellaneous items are on sale. Dealers often come to visit, knowing that they can get a great bargain. But Lewi is hoping that his recent marketing exploits — designing flyers to be distributed locally — will attract more members of the public.

The shop work is co-ordinated by Martin, a man in his mid-50s, who has been a com­panion for six months. “You’re only ever three mortgage repayments away from being home­less, they say, and that’s what happened to me,” Martin says in a gentle London accent, as he provides a guided tour.

“I had a cleaning business, but then couldn’t pay the bills. And without anyone to support me, I was out.”

Martin’s first port of call was his local council. “I lost my home and job at the same time. The council referred me on to night shelters. The nearest to me was in St Albans; so I went there.”

Hostels usually allow people to stay there for a month. After that, he explains, “you get referred somewhere else, or you’re allowed to stay for a bit longer, but you’re on a thing called ‘Time out’. Other people can get in ahead of you; but if there’s space at six o’clock, you can get yourself in for the night.”

The hostel referred Martin to Emmaus, which, he says, was ideal. “I liked the thought of working. You get an allowance, and you can do what you’re suited to here. And if you’re not suited to anything, you can be trained.”

THE Emmaus movement began in France, when a Roman Catholic priest, Abbé Pierre, was so angered by the poverty around him that he opened his home to 18 homeless men. These men supported themselves by refur­bishing other people’s rubbish, and became known as “the rag-pickers of Emmaus”.

The Abbé chose the name Emmaus because he loved the gospel story of hope and new purpose gained by the disciples when they met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Today, there are more than 400 communities in 39 countries. The first UK community was set up in Cam­bridge in 1992.

Despite Emmaus’s spiritual origins, David Bex, the “community leader” (Emmaus-speak for general manager) at St Albans, makes it clear that the communities are not religious. “They are entirely secular,” he states. “Abbé Pierre purposely wanted it to be secular, so that it wouldn’t exclude anybody. If you’re 18 and homeless, that’s the criteria. Nothing else.”

Despite Emmaus’s spiritual origins, David Bex, the “community leader” (Emmaus-speak for general manager) at St Albans, makes it clear that the communities are not religious. “They are entirely secular,” he states. “Abbé Pierre purposely wanted it to be secular, so that it wouldn’t exclude anybody. If you’re 18 and homeless, that’s the criteria. Nothing else.”

Church connections are strong, never­the­less. Terry Waite is the president of the Em­maus UK Federation, while Lord Runcie, for whom Mr Waite worked, was responsible for the establishment of the St Albans com­munity.

“Robert found out about Emmaus. Because he was a St Albans lad, he decided it would be good to see one in his home town” Mr Bex says.

After much planning and fund-raising — £1.5 million was required to buy and refurbish the dilapidated nurses’ quarters. The doors opened to the first companion in January 2001.

Mr Bex joined the St Albans community four years ago, but is well aware of the antagonism that preceded the establishment of the community in the area. “There was an awful lot of ‘nimbyism’, and in the first few public meetings supporters of Emmaus feared they would get lynched — it was that bad.”

After a delegation of concerned local people went to visit another Emmaus centre, however, they softened. “The whole thing of ‘We don’t want paedophiles and drug-takers and drunkards in our community’ began to change. And, since we’ve opened, we’ve not had one complaint. The locals come in and buy their stuff from us.”

RECENT research by Cambridge Uni­versity suggests that the public should, indeed, be positive about the growing presence of Emmaus communities across the country.

“They worked out that each Emmaus community can save the taxpayer around £800,000 a year,” Mr Bex says with pride. Com­panions come off benefits in order to join Emmaus. Their health improves, too, saving the NHS money. And the recycling of furniture saves tipping. (The Cambridge community saves 900 tonnes of landfill each year through Emmaus’s recycling activities.)

Since Mr Bex has worked at the St Albans community, 130 companions have come and gone. At all Emmaus centres, companions must abide by a set of basic rules: signing off benefits, agreeing not to drink or take drugs on site, and making a commitment to work 40 hours per week.

There are 19 different jobs at the St Albans community, from maintaining the building and cooking for companions to running the shops and driving the furniture vans.

Apart from “a little conflict from time to time”, the community runs well, Martin says. Every newcomer to Emmaus spends a week getting to know the community and doing some work. At the end of the week the com­munity decides whether that person may join. “We rarely say no,” Martin says, “although Emmaus is not for everyone.”

Once a person has joined a community, there is no limit to how long he or she can stay. Mr Bex believes that this is a vital part of the Emmaus ethos, and runs counter to Britain’s target-driven culture.

“It’s all about numbers. With night shelters, for instance, you’ve got to get people in the front door and out the other side because it’s numbers, numbers, numbers.

“Well it’s not: it’s all about people,” he continues. “And people take time — to learn to look after themselves, to trust the people around them. You can be a companion here for as long as you want; that’s very important.”

The average stay tends to be two years. And, at present, the companions at St Albans mostly, though not exclusively, are men (there are two female companions) ranging in age from the mid-30s to the late-50s.

“The majority of people we see here are white, Anglo-Saxon, and between 30 and 45,” he says. But they have had people of all ages, from 18 to 65. “That tends to reflect the community around us.”

LEWI fits the St Albans bill. He is 39, and has suffered mental illness, as have many who come through the doors at St Albans. “I’m one of the people who slipped through the net,” he tells me as we share a coffee in the spartan but adequate dining area.

“I have bi-polar affective disorder. But I didn’t know that. I would always get myself a good job, a place to live, a nice girlfriend, but then screw it up and end up on the streets.”

“I have bi-polar affective disorder. But I didn’t know that. I would always get myself a good job, a place to live, a nice girlfriend, but then screw it up and end up on the streets.”

One of the effects of his illness is a cycle of crushing depression. “You wouldn’t keep your­self clean; you wouldn’t come out of your room. I would lie to try to hide my illness, and I would lose everything because I was telling lies.”

When he arrived at the community two years ago, he was able to see a counsellor, who identified his illness. “They sussed it straight away,” he recounts. “Absolutely sussed it.” Now, Lewi knows that he has a type-2 disorder, and is able to control things far more effectively through medication.

“Emmaus totally sorted me out. They gave me the space and the time to be ill. There was one point where I didn’t work or leave my room for a month. Now we’re dealing with it. I’m getting my act together, and haven’t had an episode for a long time.”

He has now reached the point where he is getting ready to leave. “I’m practising the skills I’m going to need when I go,” he tells me. “I want to set up an ethical trading company. I should be able to support myself doing that.”

Having spent five or six years on the streets, he is determined not to return there. “Emmaus saved my life,” he says.

LATER, as I wander with Martin through the TV room, with its pool table, darts board, and splendid examples of Emmaus furniture, into the spacious garden, through workshops and kitchens, Martin reminisces about the years he worked for the Sex Pistols as a “confidante and helper”. (Martin grew up in the same neigh­­bour­hood as Johnny Rotten, who employed his friends when they hit the big time).

We chat about music and football, and whether his beloved Arsenal will challenge for the title this year. Until a year or so ago, he held a season ticket there. And with every sentence, any preconceptions of “the homeless” melt away.

“This place has been a sanctuary for me,” he says, smiling. “It’s given me time to cool off and to get myself sorted.”

Unlike Lewi, Martin feels that he is not yet ready to move on. One thing is for sure, however: he will know where to come for fabulous but affordable furniture when he does.


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