Miranda Innes

People come to Emmaus from far and wide, hunting for treasure among the miscellany of vintage, antique and up-cycled furniture and bric-a-brac. The warehouse in Whitworth Road, near Sainsbury’s, is a Mecca for discerning bargain-hunters: it is the very place to find the lead for a defunct piece of electronica, an eight-piece drum kit, an immaculate Pink Floyd vinyl first pressing, or a set of 1930s suitcases complete with Cunard stickers. That is the joy – the thrill of the hunt, you never know what you’ll find.

On the other hand, you may come at it from a different angle – you may decide that all those books that you have a) read or b) never will read, those accumulated knick-knacks that were essential until you got them home and become just more things to gather dust, or even the redundant Italian leather Chesterfield, all now fill you with depression. If you yearn for the clarity, the ataraxia of having less stuff, Emmaus will come and clear your clutter. For free.

And they will do this for the best of reasons: housing the homeless.

In a perfect world there would be no need for charities, perfectly functional people would not spiral down into the void and find themselves with nothing, no identity, no bed to sleep in, no safe place. Rough sleepers die in winter, three died last Christmas in Hastings.

‘When people come here, they’re like startled birds. If you’ve been sleeping in a doorway for six weeks, you’re not going to trust anyone.’

“Nirvana, really”.

For seven years Zach Hurst, manager of this branch of Emmaus (there are 29 in the UK) and his hard-working team of four professionals have been scooping up the homeless – from CEOs whose lives have fallen apart spectacularly to eighteen-year-olds escaping or turned out from home – providing protection, understanding, a breathing space and a chance to start again. Plus a self-contained en suite room, a laundry, meals cooked every day by their excellent chef (mmmm, chilli when I visited), training, work, a routine, a bit of money, dignity and company. There’s a computer room for Skyping, writing CVs, applying for birth certificates and passports; a social room with a pool table, a pair of cockatoos and a tank of fish; a sheltered, leafy garden with seating, barbecue and raised beds for vegetables. The people here are referred to as companions. As Wayne, one of the companions, commented, “Nirvana, really”. His room is a simple, private space. On the wall there is a picture of a donkey, head bowed, standing alone in the snow. “That was me. Out in the cold. For two years. Fell into the void, lost it all. It goes quick, like dominoes. You get depressed, can’t function normally, it can only get bad from that moment onwards. Next thing you know, it’s cold. Minus ten degrees one night. Here, you’ve got an address to work from, a birth certificate, driver’s licence, landlord reference. All those things go when you’re homeless. Everything conspires to keep you down. No one can contact you. It worked out in the end, but when you can’t see the end, it’s a dark place.” His mother gave him a phone, but he had no way to charge it.

“You see it coming, but it still comes”

Wayne is an intelligent, competent and determined character. “Stubborn, I denied I had a problem. Didn’t talk to anyone. Being stoical. I’d avoid people because they assumed wrongly that I was a benefit scrounger. Homeless people hide away. It can happen to anyone. It happens quick, you see it coming, but it still comes. I needed this: breathing space, a little bit of routine, getting things done, being part of life again.”

Unusually, Emmaus sets no time limit for the residents. Zach says: “To turn people out after two years, you may not even have touched the sides of their problems, if they’ve been robbed or attacked. They need time to develop trust. We help younger people to develop skills so they can leave, start afresh, so they don’t get institutionalised.”

At the beginning there were nine rooms. Now there are twenty-three. “Only twenty-three, but twenty-three better than nothing. We’ve got a waiting list. And we get people back to work, with seventy-five per cent positive move-ons.” That is a huge achievement, given that they get precious little financial help and support the whole operation through their shop.

“Like being in a family, with all the good and bad that goes with that.”

The companions come through the local council, probation office, social services, Homeworks. They have a variety of problems: drink and drugs – for which they have outside therapy – debt, broken relationships, psychiatric problems, even physical ones – like the nineteen-year-old with trench foot. Zach says “they get their own room, warm and dry, people who care a bit, like being in a family, with all the good and bad that goes with that.”

Emmaus has a training fund. The companions are encouraged to pass on their skills – three companions are fully trained in electrical PAT testing and all the electrical goods that are sold in the shops are checked in-house. Others do French polishing and upholstery, some rotate work in the large kitchen, the shop and the shoppers’ cafe, picking up a variety of skills en route, some are taught to drive and ferry passengers in the minibus and shift and load furniture in the two vans. An ex-companion comes back to give haircuts.

Wayne was suspicious to start with. “I thought I was going to be used, I thought, what do they want? There’s no such thing as a free meal, thought they’d work me to death.
I thought that once I was in, I wouldn’t be able to get out. But it’s not like that. I’m just so glad I was recommended.”

Zach speaks with convincing enthusiasm about seeing the personality emerge in a life-battered companion, with pride about being able to help people get back on the right track, find a flat, a job, a life.

Abbé Pierre, an extraordinary Parisian, founded Emmaus in 1949 as a non- religious organisation to rescue refugees, the poor and the homeless, naming it after a village where two people housed Jesus without knowing his identity. In the bitter winter of 1954, the Abbé put out an S.O.S on finding the dead body of a woman still clutching her eviction notice from the previous day: “If you suffer, whoever you are, enter, eat, sleep, recover hope, here you are loved.’”

His legacy is powerful: “This is not a shelter. We have dignity. We work. We have earned our bread as a Community in the service of those who are worse off than us.”

For more information visit Emmaus

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