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!