Tag Archives: Emmaus

Can a a belief in the individual tackle homelessness?

Soil and soul

At Christmas, I blogged about homelessness in Brussels.  It was a reflection on some people I came across in the early hours of the morning when the temperatures were dropping well below -10 degrees and they were lying exposed on the street.  I finished that blog with a question; what can we do for these people when handing out soup and clothes seems such a “token” response and does not challenge the underlying problems.  Through two separate incidents in my life recently, I think I have stumbled across at least a partial answer.  The first was reading the book “soil and soul” the second was through applying for a job with a charity called “Emmaus“.

Soil and Soul opens it’s introduction with the musing’s of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid., “There must be more to life, than for human beings to owe dignity”.  This “more”, McIntosh (the author of Soil and Soul) claims is the capacity to see a person’s potential for blossoming: to see what they could become and maybe still can be; not just the limitations of what they presently are.  MacDiarmid goes on to say “And I am concerned with the blossom”.

For me, this introduction was hugely significant.  People (myself included) spend a lot of time and energy troubling themselves with the negative state of the present, and not enough, with the positive potential of the future.  This is partially because it is a lot easier to be critical of what is here in front of you now.  It takes boldness to predict (especially positively) what lies ahead of you.  It is therefore a challenge for anyone to engage in McIntosh’s vision of seeing the “blossom” in people. It is a challenge though, that I strongly suspect is of great reward when engaged with.

It was curious therefore that days after reading this, I stumbled across an organisation that I used to be involved with that had drifted from my radar of late.  The charity Emmaus offers homeless individuals “a home, work and the chance to rebuild their lives in a supportive environment”.  The Emmaus community offers individuals accommodation, food, clothing and a small weekly allowance.  In return they must stick to the rules of the community such as not bringing drugs or alcohol on site.  The residents work full-time collecting, renovating and re-selling furniture.  At the same time, a series of training takes place to re-skill the residents.

The aspect of Emmaus that overlaps so strongly with Soil and Soul (as well as the emphasis on community), is the issue of turning the negative perception of the homeless on its head.  Now, a homeless individual is commonly seen as a drain on society.  Emmaus looks to turn this perception around by not only letting these individuals help themselves but to also help others along the way. Any surplus income for the communities goes into funds to help set up other communities.  Equally, residents are encouraged to help out at other volunteer projects such as clearing playgrounds, offering lifts to those immobile and cooking lunches for pensioners.  This aspect of Emmaus looks for the potential not only in the individuals but also in the ripple effect that these people can have on a community.

Emmaus at the moment does not offer a “solution” per se for homelessness in the UK.  It offers a model that has been extremely successful in tackling homelessness.  Equally, it offers a working example of a positive mindset that encourages all of us to look at the potential every individual holds with them.  As I said at the beginning, this isn’t easy, but it’s well worth giving a go!

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The Spanish, the homeless and Christmas – some reflections!

The ignored reality of homelessness - Photo is from Chirs Hall (flickr)

Brussels is a wonderful unique city to be living in during the run up to Christmas.  It has wonderful Christmas markets, live music and with the recent downfall of snow, a real feeling of Christmas cheer.  Recently however, I had a sobering experience that made me reflect on the nature of societal divisions within Brussels in stark contrast to the Christmas cheer that I have been enjoying in the last few weeks.

Let me paint you a picture.  Last Saturday I had spent the whole day walking in the Ardennes (south Belgium); I came back to Brussels to watch Arsenal demolish Hull (3-0) before meeting up with a Spanish friend of mine to celebrate his birthday.  Despite the bitter weather (-9 in the city centre), lots of friends made it out to celebrate.  Being typically Spanish my friend had arranged to meet at 22:30, and the party lasted until the early hours.  I had a really fantastic evening.  Walking home (in bitter winds and heavy snowfall), I came across a group of homeless people who were lying on the street side exposed to the elements.  How I reacted to this situation reflects a lot on how we as a society view homelessness.

I stopped, and stared and the pure injustice of a collection of men lying in sub-zero temperatures with nothing more than a blanket to warm them hit me hard.  It repulsed me to see that this could be happening in a modern European city.  I felt myself shivering with the cold (wearing a ski coat, hats, gloves etc).   In my slightly inebriated state I stood still for well over 2 minutes to think what I could possibly do in this situation.  The sad truth dawned on me that right there, in that drunken moment; there was absolutely nothing I could do.  One gentleman lying on the ground spotted me and struck up conversation.  In my French (which improves dramatically after many beers…I think) we talked briefly about how terrible the weather was.  He seemed surprisingly jolly about the whole situation.  Despite his optimism, he was visually shaking.  I strongly suspected that his optimism was fundamentally based on a cocktail of drink and drugs to get him through that freezing night. 

As I walked away, I felt more for that chap than any sober person could.  My heart bled for the pure injustice of the whole situation.  As I walked, my sorrow and sadness slowly evolved into a massive sense of anger at a system that allows for this situation to exist.  Reflecting on these thoughts the next day (in a clearer state of mind), I vowed to myself that I would work to do something about this.  In the UK, this would be easier (no language barriers).  I am aware of organisations like Emmaus and Shelter working for homeless people.  In Bath (where I lived for a number of years) I am aware of the hostel Julian House that provides nightly food and shelter for the homeless.  In Brussels however I felt flummoxed about what I could do.  Trying to help individuals only goes so far, it does not tackle the underlying reasons for the homelessness.   For every bowl of soup you hand out another person slips into destitution. 

This is not to say that handing out hot food is not beneficial.  Indeed, it can often be a life line.  It is however, fundamentally wrong that it is left to individuals and charities to try and provide support for those who have slipped through the state safety nets. 

Homelessness is not a problem in itself.  It is largely a symptom of other ills in society.  Some of the main causes of homelessness include mental health issues, substance abuse, unemployment, prison release and forced eviction.  The situation that I experienced on the streets of Brussels is reflective of our inability to tackle these underlying issues. 

These issues need to be tackled at a national level, with effective planning.  Until this happens, what can we do?  Is there anybody reading this that can offer me advice?  Is there really nothing more I can do other than hand out soup and look sympathetic?

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