Lucy visits Emmaus Norfolk & Waveney in Ditchingham to find out more about their work supporting the homeless in East Anglia.
Cecile-Aimee Roberts, Director of Emmaus Norfolk & Waveney, tells us more about the community.
We are one of 29 Emmaus communities in the UK and one of 350 internationally.
We support homelessness in a unique way: we provide a home for as long as it’s needed – for life if necessary. We currently have 23 companions living here, but this will increase to 32 in the future.
When people come here, they have to sign off all benefits and work 40 hours per week, if they’re able. As such, they help to support the Emmaus community across the UK. They often go to meet other companions at other communities to learn more. There is a real sense of solidarity. It helps rebuild self-esteem and sense of value.
One of our mantras is: if you have a bed, you have to help someone in need. That’s why our companions give out food boxes and sleeping bags to the homeless. We’ve even taken food out to refugees in Calais and we’re currently exploring ways to work with an organisation in Uganda, providing them with textiles.
The community is run collectively and there are regular companion meetings, to discuss how things are run, as well as working groups and discussions around policies. Everyone is involved.
It’s about more than homelessness – or the lack of a home – it’s about a sense of homelessness. It’s about feeling part of something.
Plans for the future
We want to create a female-friendly area. We need places where traumatised women feel comfortable. Lots of women come here and we want to support them better. We also want to create accessible rooms for disabled people.
We also have plans to open a second-hand superstore in Norwich, which will help with our new contract. We became the main supplier for the Norfolk Assistance Scheme (NAS) this year and it will really help with that.
NAS is a council-run service for people in crisis. A single person can get a £500 voucher to spend on white goods and furniture at our centre when they’re in need. In the past, we sent someone away with a second-hand Harrod’s sofa!
But we also want to make Emmaus Norfolk & Waveney a destination. It’s not just about second-hand items. We’re also planning to open the refectory as a restaurant. We have worked with the cordon bleu society to find a chef to kick start the project. The idea is to have long tables down the room where people can eat together.
Upstairs, we have 35 nuns’ cells, too. They’re tiny, but we want to open them up and become a hostel for walkers and cyclists. We’re on a pilgrimage route and this would be a great place to stop. It gives people somewhere nice to stay, with food in the refectory and a comfy bed. And by staying with us, you help provide someone else with a bed.
Read more: Joe Ringer Band interview
We always need donations of quality items. We’ll collect them for free if they’re large items. Plus, we always need volunteers. And, more than that, we need people to spread the word. Come out to see us and what we do and have a cup of tea.
I’m from Suffolk, near Bury St Edmunds, but I’ve always liked Norfolk. I’ve been here [at Emmaus] since March and it’s gone quickly.
I’ve done various jobs since I arrived. Emmaus like you to try different things and see what you’re good at, or what you like doing.
At the moment I’m the Emmaus bric-a-brac queen! I receive donations and sort them out. I like displaying stuff and cleaning. I find cleaning quite therapeutic.
We’ve got an important contract with NAS at the moment. So I make up crisis packs for people in need. These include the basics, like frying pans, glasses, cutlery and also with bedroom stuff.
I asked another companion about who gets this stuff and they said it can be people fleeing abusive relationships, who have suffered a fire or flood, or even refugees.
It’s really important for me to make the packs as nice as possible, so they have a bit of comfort. And sometimes children are involved so they can get toys and board games and things.
More than material goods
A couple of companions recently went out on the van, delivering items to a lady who was unwell and couldn’t get out of bed. It was a bit messy, so they offered to help tidy up and change her sheets.
It goes beyond the material goods for a lot of companions.
That what really sold Emmaus to me. It was the sense of community, and being called companions. That word meant a lot to me, even though I tend to be a bit of a hermit.
People sort of terrify me but everyone is willing to help if you need something, whether it’s at work or personal stuff. It really creates a sense of support.
And I feel so safe here, even though I’m the only women out of the 23 companions. I don’t even lock my door at night. I feel safer here than I have done in other places.
Prior to this, I was at a Christian society in Ipswich. It was run by Ipswich Housing Association, and they help people like me, but it was in the middle of town and became a renowned crack house. To be honest, I couldn’t cope with it. I felt like it was a bit dog-eat-dog.
I got rescued from there, I suppose. I went to a home for women. It was originally supposed to be rehab, but there was a lack of funds and they pulled out of the medical side of it, but it was beautiful. It was surrounded by fields on the outskirts of Ipswich. I felt safe there because it was just women. That was lovely.
While I was there, I had a project to do; they had received a 30-year-old greenhouse, which was in bits. I sanded it down during the summer, I painted it and did two coats… I loved that job. It kept my head above water while I wasn’t drinking. Marlene, my support worker, could see that I needed to work so she started looking around different places to see what she could find.
At first, I tried to get into Emmaus in Cambridge, but they didn’t have a place, so I came here. I’m really glad it worked out this way.
I moved in on a Tuesday, started work on Wednesday and worked through until 6pm on Saturday – when I fell asleep! It took me a while to get into the work ethos, mentally as well as physically; I’d been a single mother for 20 years and hadn’t worked since I had my first child. I found myself closing the door at night and feeling a bit alone. But it got better and now I feel integrated into the community.
The staff here are great too. They’ve got me into a 10-month alcohol support programme, which takes me over Christmas. Emmaus also employ a counsellor who takes us on wellbeing walks.
I’ve been having counselling since May and that has been great. It has helped me realise that I felt completely valueless and the focus is on changing that.
In the beginning, when I was drinking, my head was elsewhere. Often I would be thinking about getting a drink after work, but that’s passed. My counsellor knows about my drinking, but she said she’s wasn’t going to work on my drinking, she said: “I’m going to work on you”. And she has.
I haven’t had a drink in 174 days.