Emmaus – a charity providing a life-line to homeless people

Pic: John Jarrett, Emmaus companion

Making a difference to people’s wellbeing and life chances is a key aim for many charities, but in order to be truly effective charities need to ask themselves whether or not their activities make a sustainable difference. Put simply, it’s the difference between giving somebody water, or giving them the tools to build their own well.

One charity that does this really well is Emmaus (pronounced ‘Em-may-us’). The charity owes its existence to a French priest called Abbe Pierre who set up the first Emmaus community in Paris. His first beneficiary was a former prisoner called Georges, who had lost all hope and tried to commit suicide. In Abbe Pierre’s own words: “That is how Emmaus was born. Because, without giving it a second thought, I spontaneously decided to go against the very notion of charity. Instead of saying, ‘you are unhappy, I will give you a home, a job and some money’, the circumstances made me say quite the opposite. I could only tell him the truth, ‘you are dreadfully unhappy, and I have nothing to give you (…). But you, seeing as you want to die, you’ve got nothing to lose. So why don’t you come and help me help others?’ (…) ”.

Emmaus now operates worldwide and was introduced to the UK in the early 1990s. There are currently 25 Emmaus communities across the country, providing a home for those who have, for a variety of reasons found themselves homeless, together with the opportunity to work and gain new skills and confidence. Each regional Emmaus operates as a social enterprise selling second hand goods and providing other services.

Beneficiaries, known as ‘companions’, get involved in all aspects of running each Emmaus community and can gain qualifications which act as a stepping stone to independent living. There are over 600 companions in the UK and the charity plans to grow this by offering at least 750 companion places by 2017.

At Emmaus Sheffield, 17 companions currently live onsite in the stunning converted Sipilia building, a former cutlery factory, bordering the canal. Their shop is a veritable Aladdin’s cave full of furniture, clothes, household goods and books. Companions participate in all aspects of running the store, collecting donated furniture and goods, serving customers, as well as helping to run the café and take care of the charity’s two pigmy goats and rabbits. Other commercial activities include undertaking repairs on furniture and carrying out electrical safety tests for retail outlets. In addition, the charity provides qualifications ranging from manual handling, to a diploma in social care. A particularly uplifting sight on my recent visit, was seeing a door marked ‘Boat House’ which transpired to be a workshop set aside for one resourceful companion who has embarked on building his dream boat.

Companions stop receiving benefits when they move into Emmaus, except their housing benefit which goes to the charity to help fund their accommodation. All other funds are raised by their social enterprise activities and fundraising. In addition to their accommodation and food, each companion receives £35 a week in payment plus £10 worth of savings (which they can begin to draw upon once they have saved £100).

Graham Bostock, Community Manager of Emmaus Sheffield, whose role is supported by the Big Lottery Fund, explained: “It’s about supporting the whole person, giving them the skills and confidence to have a meaningful and ultimately, independent life. For people who have been living on the streets or serving time, it might be getting used to everyday tasks which may seem daunting at first, such as going to the supermarket. We also broker relationships with families, as many of the people who come to us have lost touch.”

John Jarrett, 47, has been living at Emmaus Sheffield for six months. Prior to that he was a companion at Emmaus Bedford, where he worked as a Community Assistant, supporting people moving into Emmaus. John has a long history of homelessness and drug use, combined with anxiety and depression. Since moving to Emmaus Sheffield he’s undertaken a digital business course and is responsible for managing the charity’s Facebook page and has started a blog.

“Being at Emmaus has been the best rehabilitation for me – I’ve been clean from day one and I’ve been given a lot of responsibility which has improved my self-worth. Living as part of a community helps keep me well and for the first time in my life I wake up feeling content,” said John.

Kris Becker, Emmaus companion

Kris Becker, Emmaus companion

Kris Becker, 34, was first in prison at the age of 19 due to criminal offences to fund his heroin habit. A key worker put him in touch with Emmaus when he left prison as he was no longer in touch with his family and had nowhere to go. Being at Emmaus Sheffield has given him a new lease of life: he’s passed his driving test and undertaken an NVQ in Health and Social Care level 2 and is working towards level 3. He’s also now working as a community support worker at Emmaus, helping others to overcome their issues. He explained: “I’ve been on the other side, so I can relate to people who feel like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.” Kris is also back in touch with his family and also sees his two year old daughter.

“Without Emmaus I’d be back on the streets, inside or dead,” said Kris “it’s not that I didn’t want to change before, I did, but here you get the practical support you need to make it happen”, said Kris.

Graham has a background in the probation service and running hostels, but he says the reason he is so committed to working at Emmaus is that it really does have an incredible impact on people’s lives. He says the reason for this is that companions have a focus and structure to their day, rather than being in a system which focuses on people’s issues. He explained: “We do have quite strict rules – no drugs or alcohol, and everyone has to be up and ready for work at 8.45am, but giving people a meaningful role and restoring their self-belief is extremely empowering,” he enthused.

“The proof really is in the pudding: one of our success stories is a former alcoholic who was involved in gang fighting and street crime who ended up living on the streets in Sheffield … following a three year period as a companion at Emmaus, he is now working full time in the health and social care sector,” said Graham.

Emmaus can’t eradicate the problem of homelessness in the UK, but it does provide an innovative solution to hostels for getting people off the streets, whilst also improving their overall health and employment prospects – saving the governments over £6 million in the process. In human terms, the impact of Emmaus may be immeasurable and without doubt, it helps people build their own well.


Related links:
Emmaus impact report

Learning from Samaritans’ RADAR


Recently we have witnessed the untimely passing of a number of young celebrities who felt unable to continue with their lives. People who to all intents and purposes seemed to have the world at their feet. Their deaths undoubtedly caused much distress and sadness to their loved ones, and left us all wondering: how could they, of all people, possibly feel such insurmountable despair? And why couldn’t anybody do something to help?

The answers to these questions are not simple, but organisations such as Grassroots Suicide Prevention and of course, the Samaritans, have much expertise in this area – but to extend their reach they need to educate more people about how to recognise the signs and provide the appropriate intervention.

The need for these charities is all the more pertinent given recent figures released by CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) which reveal that the highest cause of death in men under 45 years in the UK is suicide. Quite clearly, something needs to be done to reach out to those who feel that their life isn’t worth living.

In October the Samaritans launched a new Twitter App, created by digital agency Jam, to try and identify young people using Twitter who may be feeling suicidal. The opt-in RADAR app worked by analysing people’s tweets for signs that they might be feeling at a low ebb, and then notified their followers that someone they know may be distressed, providing them with advice on how they might be able to help.

The App, although undoubtedly well-intentioned, came rapidly under fire for being invasive and potentially having the opposite of the desired effect, by making people less likely to share their feelings using social media. It was also suggested that it could be used to target those who may be vulnerable.

RADAR has now been suspended pending further consideration, not least the extent to which it potentially infringes Twitter users’ privacy. The Samaritans have acted swiftly and used the brouhaha to reassert their core mission: to reach out and support those who may be feeling depressed and unable to cope.

It’s important to note that the initiative aimed to target a younger demographic who may feel more inclined than others to share their private thoughts and feelings online. Understanding how different groups are communicating via social media and tapping into these channels to signpost potentially life-saving services, should not be condemned. However, where it may be open to abuse or even potentially make the very people it aims to help withdraw from participating in their social networks, serious questions need to be asked.

On the other hand, social media is here to stay, evolving rapidly and any charity worth its salt should be exploring how they can utilise the various tools and data analyses available, to engage new audiences with their work.

My point is that we shouldn’t let this one media storm in a tea-cup put charities off exploring the potential for utilising social media to engage people with their services or a particular campaign. What we must learn from this, is that before launching any such social media ‘tool’, it needs to be adequately tested not only for its functionality, but also its legal compliance, and crucially, the potential reaction of the target group and related professionals; this is where the Samaritans clearly fell short.

Despite the furore around Samaritans’ bungled App, they should be applauded for continuing to develop innovative services to support people when they are in a fragile state of mind. On this occasion they didn’t quite get it right, but in this brave new world of online chatter, we shouldn’t chastise them for attempting a new way of enrolling young people as the eyes and ears of their organisation.

Related links:

BBC News, Technology

The Guardian, Voluntary Sector Network Blog

Paul Bernal’s Blog, Privacy, Human Rights, The Internet, Politics and more

Image credit: http://www.freeimages.com uploaded by SSPIVAK, New Zealand