What do you think happens when you lose everything?
And I don’t mean losing that £20 that was in your pocket, the keys to your car or even leaving that new gadget you just bought at the restaurant you just had lunch at.
I mean lose it all. Waking up one day after living in your nice house with your new car and realising you’re on the streets; sleeping under a halogen light in the doorway of a big office block because it’s warmer than being in the middle of Trafalgar Square at 3am. Going from everything to nothing in the blink of an eye.
I’ve never been homeless; I once slept in the doorway of a friend’s apartment during a pretty rough period of my life in London a few years back; but I’ve never experienced being on the streets for a prolonged period of time. So, I can’t directly relate to that experience like some of the people here this week. But I have been through my fare share of bad luck. But, you pick yourself up and get on with life, because that’s all you can do. So when I look around and see the people I am sat with whilst eating my dinner this week, you realise life could be a lot worse than it is. And it humbles you.
Right now, as I write this, I am sat in a bedroom in a large house for people who used to live on the streets; a community of people who live together at one of Emmaus’s 25 sites across the UK. It’s a self sufficient hub that have an onsite shop and generate their own income; living off the money the make to sustain the 24 used-to-be homeless people that occupy the rooms of the once army barracks.
For the week I am their 25th housemate – living and breathing the Emmaus way.
I decided not to stay in a hotel as usual because I wanted this week to be as real as it could be. How could I immerse myself in what it’s like to be a ‘companion’ (An Emmaus resident) if I didn’t stay with them?
Emmaus was founded in Paris and is still a thriving charity in France. Brought over to the UK it now operates nationally taking in people who were once living rough and giving them a second chance at life.
I know I go on about homeless people at a lot, but you have to understand that we are all human beings. We all feel the same pain and loss; we all share the same happiness. However different every single one of us is we are united by those very differences. So when you walk past somebody on the street and say “low-life” and ”Scum” you don’t realise that you could be months away from that position yourself.
When I asked you about losing everything I want you to understand how tangible that prospect is for you personally. Apparently we are all only 2 paychecks away from it ourselves.
Imagine: You wake up one day in your cosy bed and go for a roast on a Sunday afternoon at the pub with your partner and then all of a sudden, within a week of having your roast meal you’re faced with nowhere to live, nowhere to go.
You could fall over on a Friday night and break your right leg because you had a little too much to drink with your friends. As a result, you can no longer drive the 30miles you need to get to work on Monday morning. Pain and depression kicks in and before you know it you’ve been sacked and you cant pay your mortgage. So what then?
What then exactly…
For some turning to friends and family isn’t an option. They aren’t as lucky as some of us and as a result the cold hard truth of a pavement soon becomes reality. But there is always a way. There is always Emmaus.
Emmaus is unique. I really don’t think there is anywhere else like this organisation in the country; let alone the world. Founded on selfless principles in France after the homeless epidemic reached its peak 50 years ago. They provide a safe haven through community living for those very people who have been dealt a bad hand; by no fault of their own.
At the very core of the Emmaus way is solidarity. A word you hear over and over. They believe in helping everybody. Encouraging their companions to live a moral life by giving back to their very communities around them. A thought provoking and humbling ideology; giving back to those when you yourself have nothing to give yourself. A wise man once told me “when you have nothing, you have everything”. It took me a long time to understand what this really meant. How can you have ‘everything’ when you have nothing?
It’s because you have you and nothing else to lose. We don’t need the multitude of material possessions around us to be happy. What we need at our basic core is; food, warmth, love and compassion; those very things that every Emmaus community give in abundance.
But by being part of Emmaus community, it teaches you the wider scope of life; that there is a whole wide world out there outside of our little bubble.
While I am on the topic too, I also want to take away a little of that stigma around homelessness. Not all homeless people push drugs, not all homeless people drink themselves stupid and not all homeless people are bad people. In fact, homelessness is not a disease full stop; just a point in somebodies life. So thank God for charities such as Emmaus, because what they do goes to the very core of compassion; giving people a second chance, no matter what they have done or had done to them.
It’s that second chance at life that Emmaus give so well – a home, a job and a hot meal on the table – some of the most basic but necessary things in the world; a chance to start again and build a new life. With those fundamental securities in place these men and women can get back on their feet with a little more dignity and become the people they want to be.
What all of these people have lacked is opportunity. When talking to a few people here this week they told me their stories. How they fell onto the streets and woke up one day wondering how it happened. But the hardest part for them was getting off the pavements and into mainstream society. It was that lack of understanding and opportunity, which stopped them doing that. Being branded ‘homeless’ can to some be seen as the lowest in society; if not at part of it. Unable to get a job because of the stigma, so no availability to get money for a home or even food. A perpetual cycle that slowly eats away at you.
But Emmaus give people that opportunity. All of these people here this week are not only here because they want to be but because they have the opportunity to be.
I have to say that it has made me reflect on my own life to date and how incredibly fortunate I have been. It’s because of the opportunity from UA, that I have been able to see the world in a very different light. Being given the chance to travel the country has been far above and beyond anything I could have ever imagined; but more profound than that is the affect it has had upon me personally. This experience, including living here for a week has fundamentally shifted my core to a place that I don’t feel many people experience. Humility is something that you have to learn; and not the easy way. But there is no other way to describe how I feel, especially after spending the week at Emmaus Dover. So regardless of how many people I have helped personally this is to all those people out there that have helped me too; this is for UA, for giving me this opportunity to help others in such an enormous capacity. What you have allowed me to do this year is more than I could ever thank you for.
So let me leave you with this:
Next time that you walk past somebody on the street, stop and look. See the husband who lost his job, see the son who got in with the bad crowd and see the niece who ran away from domestic abuse and had no where to turn. Because everyone has a story; everyone has a reason. Just some of us have a little more opportunity than others. So be that person that helps them because you may be the only one that does.