Ex-homeless working their way to a better life in Emmaus Sheffield's community
The journey from sleeping on the streets to holding down a job and a home is a long, difficult one for the many people who tread it.
It Is a journey made worse by problems such as drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness, which are the most common causes of homelessness, and also lead to isolation and vulnerability.
There are plenty of places in Sheffield for people to go for a hot meal, a shower and even new clothes. But there is no quick fix to the underlying issues that cause homelessness. Thankfully the city has several charities whose staff and volunteers dedicate their lives to turning the lives of others around.
Hidden away in the shadow of the Wicker Arches is a small community of people working hard to turn their lives around.
Emmaus Sheffield is a working community, comprising a charity shop and 18 apartments. It is open to homeless people and aims to restore in them a sense of purpose and self-worth.
Those who get a space at Emmaus sign off primary benefits. The charity claims their housing benefits, and they are given a small allowance every week. In return for accommodation, they work five days a week.
Community manager Graham Bostock said: “The only way it operates is if people are in a structure. We have people with alcohol and drug problems, relationship breakdowns, people who are being abused, people with learning difficulties.”
The Emmaus shop, which sells furniture, clothing and vintage items, is the main source of revenue for the charity. It offers a number of jobs for ‘companions’ to carry out, from sales and collection to PAT testing. There is even an eBay shop.
But Graham knows he has to offer more than just a job and a roof.
“We have to provide the support for the guys,” he said. “It’s all stuff around addiction, issues around mental health – they have problems you can’t imagine. They come first. But if we don’t run the business properly we don’t survive.”
The ultimate aim is to reintegrate people with society. Emmaus offers various training courses, from first aid to driving, and although companions can stay as long as they want, the hope is for them to move on into full-time work and accommodation.
Graham said: “Our aim is to provide a safe haven for people to gain their confidence back, gain their self- esteem, get some respect back and eventually move on into society to do something they want to do.
“Last year we had four return to full-time employment.”
He added: “Our intention is not only to provide the training but it’s about giving people the confidence to do things. Some of the people we deal with have little or no confidence. Their self-esteem is rock bottom.
“We use a lot of trust. In a shop, that’s a big thing. We have lads running up the till, collecting things from all over. We have to trust them. Our hope is that they gain enough respect to take part in the community themselves. It’s about responsibility and we are quite strict with our rules. There is no alcohol or drugs on the premises and if there is, they leave. The same with abuse and violence.
“There’s a lot of fun and joking but a lot of mutual respect. The majority really take to it. Some people will stay here for 12 months and then go off. We have got someone who’s been here for seven years. But that’s not a problem to me.
“We are not talking about another species of human beings. We are just talking about people. We’ve had doctors, solicitors, policemen, university graduates and others who have just fallen off the wagon.”
Nick, aged 24, has been at Emmaus since March last year. He was not sleeping rough, but was ‘sofa surfing’ – sleeping on friends’ couches and floors.
He said: “I’ve been in the van and working in the warehouse. They just put me through my driving test. I’ve done PAT testing, a fire course and first aid.”
From a low point, Nick is now feeling ‘brilliant’.
“I was taking quite a few drugs beforehand,” he said. I’ve been in a bit of a state before. My confidence is much better now.
“I started saving some money each week, I have a plan in mind and will stick to it.
“It wasn’t nice ringing people up late at night and asking to stop. It’s not fair on them and it’s not right for me.”
Another companion, 48-year-old JJ, is a real success story. He took control of Emmaus’s eBay store, and has doubled its revenue – even earning Top Seller status.
“I always had an interest in furniture design and collectibles,” he said. “I thought I could do something with what was here. I’ve been part of the process of helping it to grow. It’s probably doubled what it was before and has the potential to grow further. It gives me a sense of pride and a sense of self worth.”
This is in stark contrast to where JJ was three years ago.
“I was homeless, staying with friends, I had a drug habit,” he said. “I suffered with anxiety and depression. I had been medicated for that for about six or seven years.
“I don’t do well in self-contained accommodation. I get isolated, bored and lonely. Because of my mental health it’s quite hard to hold down a job. So I was on long-term sick leave. I came to realise that I don’t function well the way most people do.”
Unlike Nick, JJ does not have any plans to leave the Emmaus community – something the charity is quite happy with. He said: “Emmaus offers a really good balance of independence and support. It’s almost as much of each as you want. In the evenings and weekends either see people or not. If I’m having a hard day there are staff to go and talk to. You build relationships. And if I’m really not well and can’t work, I get that space to get myself back.
“But also it’s a sense of purpose and having something to do for 40 hours a week.
“Whenever people refer to homelessness it’s always focusing on housing, getting people off the streets. And somehow that makes a productive member of society. I’m probably the most productive I’ve ever been. I don’t have any desire to live in my own flat. But I’m part of keeping this place running.”