CASE STUDY: giving old furniture a new home

| 20th August 2009
Emmaus gives homeless people a second-chance at regaining their self worth
Is it possible to help the environment, local community and give the homeless a second chance at life? The charity Emmaus is living proof that the answer is yes

Addiction, abuse, bereavement, financial or emotional breakdown... there are many paths leading to homelessness, but very few clear exits out. Emmaus, ‘the homeless charity that works', has a proven track record of getting and keeping individuals off the streets, rehabilitating their lives and bringing back a sense of self worth. In providing a place to live and work for previously homeless individuals, Emmaus communities fund themselves by the recycling and selling-on of goods, crucially enabling the residents themselves to be architects of re-building their life - this is not a homeless charity, but a working community.

In the words of one UK resident (or 'companion' as they are known):

'Emmaus is not really a charitable organisation and it's not just about homeless people, it's a philosophy. Emmaus does not just take someone, give them a job and tell what their room number is. Emmaus allows everyone to find their own path.'

From tiny acorns...

Emmaus was founded in France after World War II by the charismatic French priest Abbé Pierre, whose beliefs permeate the organisation to this day. Brought up in relative privilege, Abbé Pierre had an acute sense of social inequalities from an early age, leading to him becoming a member of the Popular Republican Movement and later an active member of the French Resistance.

Following the war he became an MP, concentrating his attention on tackling a growing housing crisis. Unable to get an adequate response from government, he opened his own home and started a building programme to house those in need. The founding moment of Emmaus came not with this provision of shelter though, but in a meeting of two men in 1949.

This meeting was between the Abbé and a homeless man named Georges. Recently released from prison, Georges had nowhere to go and in despair had tried to commit suicide. Abbé Pierre asked Georges to help him with his housing project. Georges accepted and became the first companion, recognising that:

'Whatever else he might have given me - money, home, somewhere to work - I'd have still tried to kill myself again. What I was missing, and what he offered, was something to live for.'

This is the essence of Emmaus - empowerment through community and meaningful work. In the words of Emmaus UK's slogan it is 'giving homeless people a bed and a reason to get out of it'.

Emmaus grew from these simple beginnings. Taking on collecting, refurbishing and selling-on goods as a way to finance themselves, those first companions became known as the ‘ragpickers of Emmaus'. This successful model of social transformation proved a popular one- Emmaus has grown into an international movement consisting of over 400 member associations worldwide.

Abbé Pierre remains a vivid figure within the movement. In France he is an icon; till his death in 2007 he frequently topped popularity polls- likened to a modern day Asterix in his willingness to take on authority in support of the socially excluded.


His legacy reaches out across Emmaus worldwide. While visiting the recently opened Emmaus Hampshire it was interesting to note that the leader directly referred to Abbé Pierre in a decision concerning a fellow companion- ‘what would the Abbé have done?'. In Benin, it is a measure of his popularity that they have helped fundraise for a water project by selling postcards and posters of him.

Mighty oaks

Emmaus today still centres on these communities of previously homeless people funding themselves through selling second-hand goods. There are 19 communities in the UK, from Glasgow to Brighton. They sell a huge range of goods - from sofas to saxophones. Different Emmaus communities have different specialities, for example Emmaus Bristol concentrates on bicycles, Emmaus Brighton on market gardening. Many communities also have cafes.

On entering a community a companion will have to work a 40 hour week in one aspect of the community's work, receiving bed, board and a small wage in return.

The community offers the opportunity of training, furnishing companions with new skills to take into the job market. This could be in areas directly relevant to the community, for example health and safety, food hygiene, furniture refurbishing or courses such as literacy, numeracy, driving or computing.

The focus though is on the transformative effect of the work, of companionship and of a sense of ownership. Combined, this gives people the strength to rebuild their lives, gaining the confidence and self esteem to make choices about their life. The fact that there is no limit on the amount of time that a person can stay at Emmaus provides the security for augmenting real change. One companion sums up the ethos as Emmaus being a ‘place where people need to contribute. Helping yourself and other people. This community is all our own work.'

The benefits are not restricted to companions: Emmaus UK states that any individual site must not be set up in isolation but must be seen as part of the wider community to which it will add value. It should be a symbiotic relationship. The benefits to the locality are numerous and include the collection of unwanted items, the provision of high quality second-hand goods and the work that companions do with local charities (for example recycling projects with local schools and winter soup runs). As an Emmaus Bristol companion puts it: ‘people from the local community really use us, so it's linked in, connected.'

Green growth

Emmaus is an inherently environmentally-friendly organisation. The communities re-direct a substantial amount of goods heading to landfill - it is estimated that Emmaus Cambridge alone reduces this by 925 tonnes per year. Emmaus' environmental credentials are also being furthered by innovative projects throughout the international community. These include water projects, financial support of UN sustainability priorities and a 2008 sustainability conference held by Emmaus Europe. In the UK Emmaus' commitment to the environment is illustrated through the take-up of community buildings with a high environmental specification, such as the recently opened Emmaus Hampshire.

Emmaus states that 'environmental, social and economic concerns can not be implemented independently of each other, they are all part of achieving the same goal'; for Emmaus this goal is a fairer world. Taking this remit, Emmaus is involved in a hugely diverse range of projects internationally. Current projects include micro-credit schemes in the Lebanon, mutual health schemes in Africa and America and training for women in India.

The organisation is structured so that while each community is individually autonomous they are part of a wider web of mutual support, supporting each other through what Emmaus terms ‘solidarity actions'. This means that though projects are initiated by the local community, the international network of groups will back them through a range of initiatives based around raising money, awareness and sharing knowledge through direct work with other communities. In line with Abbé Pierre's vision that the whole world should be referred to as 'our countries', it is hoped that these actions actively bridge the local and the global- creating a worldwide network.

Recognising the twin needs of individuals for autonomy and solidarity, Emmaus provides people with the opportunity to transform their lives. Reflecting its foundations, Emmaus is idealistic yet pragmatic offering, as Abbé Pierre envisaged, the dispossessed a future ‘not through the offer of pity and charity but by recognising that we need them.'

Emmaus UK
The global Emmaus network

Video produced by Positive TV


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