Fighting for life’s second chance

Emmaus worker Kris
Emmaus worker Kris
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Heroin, homelessness, and now a happy life in a working haven. Star reporter Rachael Clegg finds out about the charity that saved the lives of two Sheffield men.

VISITING home is supposed to be a nice experience.

The Duchess of Cornwall with staff and some of the companions at the Emmaus Community in Sheffield

The Duchess of Cornwall with staff and some of the companions at the Emmaus Community in Sheffield

But for Sheffield-based Tam Comrie, visiting Glasgow doesn’t fill him with warmth – he says it fills him with dread.

Tam has battled alcohol addiction for 16 years. He’s lost jobs over it, got into gang culture and has served four prison sentences. Yet, even having experienced imprisonment, alcoholism and gang warfare, it’s visiting home that fills him with a sinking feeling.

“That’s when I hit rock bottom,” he says, “When I go home.”

Tam left Glasgow a year ago, leaving behind his old life for a better one in Sheffield. He left his friends, family, home – everything he knew – to work and live in Sheffield, at the Emmaus community.

Tam Comrie at Emmaus in Sheffield which has helped him turn his life around

Tam Comrie at Emmaus in Sheffield which has helped him turn his life around

The charity – of which Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall is patron – helps homeless people start a new life and is based at the Canal Basin. The Duchess visited the Sheffield base last year.

“I had an alcohol advisor in prison and they recommended Emmaus as a charity that could help me,” he said.

Tam was at Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow when he was first introduced to Emmaus.

He had been charged with serious assault after stabbing a man in his stomach.

“I was drunk at the time but I was stabbed in the neck during the fight so I spent a weekend in hospital, I woke up and was remanded and I remember thinking, ‘What’s going on?’.”

But that was how his life was in Glasgow. All his friends were in gangs. “There are hundreds of gangs in Glasgow and I would never go out without a knife in my pocket – I wouldn’t even go to the local shop without a knife,” he says.

Tam’s life today couldn’t be further away from that of his days in Glasgow. The Emmaus charity has give the 30-year-old Scot a new lease of life in Sheffield.

He volunteers at the centre doing odd jobs, as well as maintenance and selling second hand furniture to help the charity raise funds to help more people like him.

“My life is great now. I play football for a couple of teams, I go cycling with friends in the Peak District and I am looking to start training to be a youth worker really soon.”

Tam’s goal is to get his own place and start work as soon as possible.

But he still battles with alcoholism. “It’s still a struggle, to be honest. I am still seeing a counsellor. It’s hard because alcohol is all around you, it’s so socially acceptable and it’s how most people socialise.”

His resilience is seeing him through though. “I’m happy now and I keep busy,” he says.

But it’s important that Tam stays away from Glasgow. “When I decided to stop drinking I had to leave home because I would have started drinking again,” he says.

But it’s not just Tam that Emmaus is helping.

Kris Becker, from Bentley in Doncaster, has also started a new life with Emmaus.

Kris was – until very recently – a heroin addict. He served time at Moorlands and was even homeless at one point.

“I’ve been off heroin since I’ve been here,” he says. “But I am struggling with it. It’s hard in the evenings because there’s nothing to do.”

But his life – like Tam’s – is improving. “Being involved with Emmaus really changed my life but I have to work for it too.”

Emmaus is strict about the fact its residents work for their lodgings and food. The charity generates funds and work for its members by renovating and reselling donated furniture.

The focus on work and self-improvement, the charity believes, improves a person’s self respect, which is key to enabling them to lead a better life.

“I had low self esteem before,” says Kris. “I wasted 12 years of my life.”

Kris first tried heroin when he was 19. “I was with my mates and I had never heard of it before. That’s how naive I was at that age.”

He became addicted to it and that addiction eventually took over his life.

“At my lowest point I was homeless, with no job, no money – that was for three months during one summer but it was still freezing at night sleeping under a bridge in Doncaster.”

Like Tam, Kris has a flat of his own at the Emmaus centre.

It’s an idyllic setting. The former factory sits alongside the canal. Its courtyards are adorned with flowerpots and garden furniture and cobbled paths meander between huge furniture showrooms.

This is how Emmaus makes its money – selling second hand furniture – and it now it has a ‘vintage’ section, which is peppered with 20th-century gems such as art deco cabinets and 1960s tables.

And, looking at the flowers, the furniture and the antique bric-a-brac, it’s hard to imagine that only one year ago Tam was in one of Glasgow’s toughest prisons and Kris was sleeping under a railway.

“Emmaus saved my life,” says Kris. “That’s all I can say.”

The Emmaus Centre’s vintage furniture section is now open to the public.

GOOD COMPANIONS

Emmaus help people to move on from homelessness, providing work and a home in a supportive, family environment.

Residents are referred to as ‘companions’, and work full time collecting, renovating and reselling donated furniture.

Their work helps finance the Emmaus community and enables residents to develop self-respect.

‘Companions’ receive accommodation, food, clothing and a small weekly allowance.

The patron of the charity is the Duchess of Cornwall, pictured.

Emmaus is a secular organisation and spans 36 countries.

Sheffield’s Emmaus centre and ‘community’ is one of 23 in the UK.