Emmaus Cambridge celebrates 30 years of community support with Saturday open day
Emmaus Cambridge, the Landbeach-based charity, is celebrating 30 years of supporting people to rebuild their lives after experiencing homelessness.
Established in 1991, Emmaus Cambridge provides a home, meaningful work opportunities, support and training for up to 44 formerly homeless people – known within the Emmaus movement as companions – at any one time. There is no time limit on this support, with some companions staying a few weeks, others much longer.
To mark three decades since Emmaus Cambridge opened its doors, the charity is inviting supporters and visitors to the community on Saturday (August 28) for a day of celebrations. Between 10am and 4pm, the open day will involve live music, spoken word, and family fun and games. The site, shop and cafe will be open, with the chance to go behind the scenes and tour some of the companion-only areas, usually off-limits to the public.
Terry Waite, Emmaus UK’s patron, is due to attend and celebrate a successful and self-sustaining social enterprise which collects and sells people’s surplus goods in its popular charity shop and online.
Chair of the trustees, Matthew Last, says the Cambridge model was the first of what is now 29 other Emmaus communities in England, including in Bolton, Bradford and Brighton. The charity was founded as an international solidarity movement in Paris in 1949 by Catholic priest and Capuchin friar Abbé Pierre to combat poverty and homelessness. Emmaus International, now run by Jean Rousseau, involves 350 groups in 37 countries, offering a range of charitable services.
“It started in the UK 30 years ago, when Abbe Pierre in France gave £50,000 to Emmaus Cambridge,” Matthew says. “Selwyn Image, a local businessman at the time, was the originator and founder of Emmaus in Cambridge. He’d read languages at Cambridge and went to Paris to improve his conversational French.”
It was in Paris that Selwyn encountered, then worked for, Emmaus, before returning to Cambridge in 1989, where he was struck by the increase in homelessness since he had been away. Selwyn – still part of the Emmaus UK team – describes meeting a homeless man on Parker’s Piece.
“His story was a familiar one. Broken marriage, move into digs, redundancy, and drink to anaesthetise the pain and humiliation of life on the street, and the bitter reality of no home no job, no job no home.
“Every attempt I made to be hopeful and positive was shot down with ruthless logic until, in a shameful moment of irritation, I said: ‘What is it you want, then?’ He told me patiently but with an intensity I can still hear: ‘I want to work and belong. I want my self-respect back. I don’t want to queue for handouts or have to beg for food. And I don’t want people to cross the street to avoid me’.”
“Selwyn rang Abbe Pierre to ask for support,” Matthew adds, “and we now spend 10 per cent of our income on solidarity with other Emmaus centres or local people.”
The site at Landbeach was acquired in March 1991 and was originally just two derelict buildings in a field. The site was worked on by volunteers, and the first companions moved into caravans later that year. In July 1992 the Emmaus Cambridge shop was opened by Terry Waite CBE and the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Runcie. Emmaus Cambridge has since seen more than 2,000 seekers of support pass through its doors.
“One companion has been here for more than 20 years. He’s retired but still works, others come for three or four months. The only rules are no alcohol, no drugs, no fighting, work to the best of your ability and be part of the community.
“We have 44 rooms and they’re generally mostly full, and 21 staff, though only two live on the site. They include support teams, admin, running the eBay site and shops, a maintenance team and the cafe,” explains Matthew.
There is now a greater call on places at Emmaus than ever.
“The demand has absolutely spiralled in the last two years. That’s probably because of government social services cuts and restrictions on Universal Credit, some people who are asylum seekers, or ex-soldiers, or not of settled status: some are referred by other charities. Frankly there are some graduates, and people with professional jobs... it doesn’t take much for people to fall through the grates – a bereavement could be all it takes.”
Matthew started off as a volunteer and became a trustee in 2012. He has been chair for the last three years and, as custom dictates, his term is coming to an end and the search for an appointment will culminate in a new chair being appointed later this year. It is not an easy gig – there are 12 different income streams at the Landbeach site – and the pandemic has not helped either.
“In business if you pull a lever you know what the result will be but as a charity you may pull a lever and be surprised at what comes out. That’s because some people are traumatised or have mental health problems, so it can be very difficult. They may not have the toolkit as it were.
“What we’re seeing now is a combination of mental and physical issues. It could be drugs, alcohol, PTSD, trauma... some of the younger ones have never worked so that’s difficult – it’s difficult to explain what work is. Also modern synthetic drugs are long-term deleterious – with alcohol it messes up your liver but with spice or synthetic cannabis it’s much more complicated and we have to provide much more support than we used to.”
Diane Docherty, chief executive of Emmaus Cambridge, says: “Emmaus Cambridge is a very special place to work. I’m proud to be part of an organisation that has transformed so many lives. We could not have achieved any of this without the people that support our work – whether it’s through donating items to our charity shop, shopping with us or volunteering your time to support our companions, you have helped make an incredible difference to the lives of people who have experienced homelessness. Our companions, staff, trustees and volunteers look forward to welcoming you to help us celebrate our achievements.”
Selwyn concludes: “Today, 75 years after its foundation in France and 30 years here in the UK, the unique Emmaus offering of providing meaningful work, a supportive environment and the opportunity to recover self-respect are still as relevant and needed as then.”