(The Pavement, 1 October 2009) You might have walked past an Emmaus shop and wondered what lay behind the pale green sign with the emblem of a dove holding a flower. It may look and sound like a religious organisation, but Emmaus is a secular charity with a simple aim: to “give homeless people a bed… and a reason to get out of it”.
While most homeless charities focus on one need – be it providing jobs, housing or food – Emmaus offers all three. Its members (known as ‘companions’) live, work and eat together in small, self-sufficient communities. There are 19 groups in the UK, everywhere from Glasgow to Brighton, plus branches in 36 countries around the world.
The pioneering charity was founded 60 years ago in Paris by Father Henri-Antoine Groues, better known as Abb?© Pierre – a Catholic priest, MP and former member of the French Resistance. One night, he was introduced to a homeless man named Georges who had tried to commit suicide in the river Seine after being released from prison after 20 years, only to find his family could not cope with his return. Abbé Pierre asked Georges to help him, and together they set about building temporary homes, initially in é Pierre’s own garden, for people living on the streets of Paris. Later, Georges said: “Whatever else he might have given me – money, home, somewhere to work – I’d still have tried to kill myself again. What I was missing, and what he offered, was something to live for”.
As more companions joined, they decided to raise money by becoming “rag pickers”, collecting and selling things people no longer wanted. The same principle is used today, with Emmaus shops selling second-hand items donated by the local community. As well as providing a constant source of funds, this has gained new significance as the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra gathers pace.
In the last issue of The Pavement, we published a letter from the new general manager of Emmaus South Lambeth (ESL), James Hayes, in which he told readers about the spaces up for grabs at ESL. Despite some high-profile supporters (Terry Waite is the Emmaus UK president, and ESL alone has been visited by celebrity chef Antonio Carluccio, Joanna Lumley, Jerry Hall and MOBO award-winner YolanDa Brown), Emmaus is still relatively unknown. This means that although it has 25 en-suite rooms, ESL currently has (at time of going to press) just 18 companions – 15 men and three women, with an age range of 23 to 63. However, it’s unlikely the rooms will stay empty for long – and just as well, since ESL will need plenty of help when its new furniture and electrical superstore opens this month.
Construction of the Beadman Street store, part funded by the Emmaus UK Federation Office with a small donation from Lambeth Council, has cost ¬£753,000. It is a sizeable chunk of money, but it is hoped that the new addition will bring fresh opportunities for the companions.
The electrical shop currently squeezes in a selection of giant TVs, small electrical appliances and – somewhat bizarrely – a motorised scooter. The new store will allow space for larger white goods, such as washing machines and dishwashers. One level of the two-storey development has been earmarked for use as a workshop, where companions will be able to do furniture restoration and PAT Testing on electricals.
Like many workplaces, a typical day at ESL begins with a staff meeting. Ideas are shared, grievances aired and jobs allocated, before everyone heads off to their respective posts. As a new arrival to ESL, James was impressed with the enthusiasm of the companions: “they’ve got strong points of view; they really care and have so much passion.”
As well as frontline work in the furniture superstore and bric-a-brac and electrical shops, the companions have plenty of behind-the-scenes work to do. Furniture donations have to be collected and purchases delivered, while all new stock must be sorted, cleaned and priced. Electrical items are also safety checked by one of the four companions trained in PAT testing.
Over in the kitchen, the chefs prepare three square meals each day for their fellow companions, using ingredients grown on ESL’s own allotment when they can. And at 5pm, after a hard day’s work, the group gather at the large wooden tables for dinner before spending the evening as they please, whether that’s at the local gym, watching TV in their room or relaxing in the comfortable communal room, with its separate TV, board game and computer areas.
The few house rules include no drugs or alcohol, no pets and no smoking in common areas. Although companions do not sign on while working with Emmaus, they continue to collect housing benefit, which goes towards funding the shops. As well as full board, companions receive a weekly allowance of ¬£33 and a one-week holiday every three months, plus ¬£100 and ¬£50 for travel. An additional ¬£5 per week is saved on behalf of each companion so that by the time they decide to move on, they have a tidy sum saved up.
There’s no time limit on how long companions can stay. “Some see it as a temporary measure to keep their CV up to date,” says James. “Others see Emmaus as their way of life and might stay five, 10 even 20 years”. The companions gain confidence, experience and skills on the job. In addition, they can attend workshops and courses in everything from food hygiene to computing and carpentry at Lambeth College. Many also bring skills from previous employment or life experience, which – combined with the help of ESL’s dedicated volunteers – makes for a rich talent pool.
Personal support is provided by a counsellor who comes once a week and a monthly support plan gives companions a chance to raise any issues, get advice and plan their next step. Additional support and guidance is provided by the two deputy community leaders, plus the four ESL companions have taken on extra responsibilities as ‚Äòcompanion assistants’.
And the inspiring principles of Abb?© Pierre remain at the heart of everything Emmaus does: acceptance, sharing, working for others in greater need and self-respect. Like Georges, companions today recognise that a reason to live is the best thing anyone can give you. ESL is holding a benefit gig at the Windmill in Brixton on 17th October, entry ¬£5.