Charity Emmaus has a practical approach to the issue of homelessness - Dr Alan Billings

From time to time people write to me about the homeless. Why don’t the police do something? I am never quite sure what the ‘something’ is that the police are supposed to do, but whatever it is, it is unlikely to solve the problem permanently.

In many ways we know what the answer to homelessness is. Far from being a ‘lifestyle choice’, those who have no roof over their heads are generally people who through a series of misfortunes in life, some of their own making, but many not, find themselves without a home, without a job, without friends or supportive family – and probably with an alcohol or drug problem as well.

Where do you even start to help someone in that position?

One answer is Emmaus – not the place but the organisation. Emmaus is a charity whose stated aim is to support people to ‘work their way out of homelessness’ so that homelessness can be ended altogether. Recently I went to the Emmaus project in Sheffield. It’s in an old cutlery factory beside the canal, not far from the Quays and the city centre.

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A homeless people sleeping rough. PIC: Nicholas.T.Ansell/PA WireA homeless people sleeping rough. PIC: Nicholas.T.Ansell/PA Wire
A homeless people sleeping rough. PIC: Nicholas.T.Ansell/PA Wire

When you go inside the building – and the public are welcome to drop in – there is a cafe, a shop selling wooden items made by the companions (as Emmaus calls them) as well as books and bric a brac, a furniture store selling refurbished tables and chairs and beds, and workshops. It’s like a vast Aladdin’s cave.

At any one time there are up to 16 people living on the project. Some have been literally on the streets, while others have been sofa surfing. They are given a small bedsit with a shared kitchen and have work provided through the various activities of the project.

When I was there, some companions were out in the van collecting unwanted furniture, others were repairing items or selling them in the shop; some were working in the kitchen or on lathes in the woodwork shop, and so on. Everyone was doing something productive and useful.

Emmaus is a practical answer to the problem of homelessness. It provides a stable home for as long as someone may need it – which can be anything between one or two years, on average. It gives training. It gives support. It provides companionship. And those who take part have to be drug and alcohol free, something that is strictly enforced.

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This was a return visit for me. I dropped into Emmaus some years ago when I was first Police and Crime Commissioner. Recently I was there to see how they were getting on with a £10,000 grant we had given and to assure them of our continuing support. I was anxious to know that they had managed to survive the pandemic – which they had.

We calculated that in the time I had known them, the project had helped as many as 600 people, mainly men, to find a way out of homelessness.

As I came away, I thought about the number of charities and initiatives that do something for the homeless, not least at Christmas; but there are few which offer the potential of a permanent way forward. If we had more Emmaus projects – they are found in a number of towns across the country- perhaps I would have fewer calls asking why the police weren’t doing something about those wrapped in duvets in shop doorways on cold winter nights.

A shortened version of the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire’s latest blog post.

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