‘Billy used to be homeless.’ A visit to Emmaus Hull and East Riding.

By Mel Hewitt, December 2017.

December has shown up again, the same time as it usually does – and bringing all things Christmas along with it. It gets its timing right each year as shoppers scurry in the cold, determined to exchange their monthly incomings into material outgoings that they then wrap up and give to their nearest and dearest – a sure token of their affection and adoration. We only have to take our blinkers off for a minute, though, and in-between the addictively twinkly shop windows of our high streets we see the evidence of our cities being polarised into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Dirty blankets, pots for change, agendas that have no space for anything but nourishment, warmth and the occasional “Can you spare some change please, love?” So for what it’s worth, reader, this Christmas, can I gift you a tale of Billy?

Billy used to be homeless. He knows what it is to be a ‘have-not’ in a world addicted to Advent. He has slept on the streets, in hostels and in a prison cell. I am sure he is well-versed in his rattle for change and is highly skilled in catching the eye of a stranger, hurtling past, arms as full as sleighs will be. He also has academic qualifications in mechanics, the gift of the gab, a way of putting people at ease, and now a home at The Orchard – Hull’s Emmaus community. For those of you who don’t know what an Emmaus community is (or indeed that Hull had one) don’t worry – you’re in good company. Let’s start with the internet, then I’ll give you the feels.

Emmaus, according to my pal Wiki, is “an international solidarity movement founded in Paris in 1949 by the Catholic priest Abbe Pierre to combat poverty and homelessness”. His picture hangs proudly in the Emmaus superstore on Lockwood Street where many of the companions live, work and participate in this thing we’re all collectively winging called life. Thirty companions can live and work there at any one time.  Emmaus provides a home, a job, a place to socialise, learning and much more than that. It invests in people’s identities and provides them with not only physical safety inside its roof and walls, but an environment fit for purpose with its wraparound care. Billy put it much more eloquently than I ever could with his definition simply being “Freedom”. The superstore is vast, with every conceivable item of donated furniture on display; all cleaned, some upcycled and ready to find a new home. I eyed up a chair that would have sat perfectly in my hallway if only I knew the size of the space to fill. It could wait. I knew I’d be coming back.

Billy tells me the importance of the daily morning meetings, sorting what needs sorting, airing views that need sharing and allocating a key holder for when everyone else goes to their home and the companions are left to manage themselves. A brilliant way for companions to be heard and participate is having their own daily planning meeting. Integration and self-empowerment are key themes that seem to underpin everything that goes on here. I could almost feel it. The companions manage themselves domestically and do this  successfully. Rotas line one noticeboard – kitchen, cleaning, laundry – and everyone does their bit to keep the wheel turning.

Next I met their dog – because why shouldn’t a ‘family’ and ‘community’ have a pet? These folk seem to think outside the box with every available opportunity and make a success out of it. For gardeners there is an allotment and a decent whack of green space. For those who aren’t gardeners, I have a feeling they may have a go. More than once I heard that once someone starts tinkering about with something at The Orchard, others quickly follow suit, constantly belting out those values of involvement, acceptance and skill-sharing. I saw it in action wherever I walked. Someone outside planing wood attracts another companion without realising it, and then there are two. Someone making Christmas trees for the new shop on Whitefriargate is soon joined by another face; a companion working the till for the first time is supported by another. Old skills are rebirthed, new skills are embraced and formal qualifications are achieved. I was quickly becoming The Orchard’s biggest fan.

We walked through to the companions’ entrance and Billy told me of his fears when he had first arrived and sat in the armchair in the lobby. Was it a cult? He soon found out it wasn’t. Would it be like prison? Another qualm quickly quashed. Interestingly, Billy used to live in Hull as a child but held little memories of it until he returned. When he did he surprised himself by knowing how to get around on autopilot because “most things haven’t changed – the streets remained the same”.

He very kindly offered to show me his room. Hands up if you would spontaneously parade the privacy of your bedroom to a stranger? Me neither. There would be swift kicks towards my space under the bed, doors pushed to and a prayer said asking for leniency from the laundry fairies. It was spacious, bright and airy with ensuite facilities – not dissimilar to student halls accommodation; in fact, the plans were to go one better than halls and give each companion more metric space. The furniture ‘basics’ are provided but the rest, the things that made his space his own, he bought himself. This is made more achievable by the policy that allows companions 50% off items from the superstore. Billy shared with me tales of his possessions including a New York skyline print and his pride-of-place tropical fish tank. “It was meant to be a fiver but I got it for £2.50,” he beamed. I surely beamed back as I thought, “What a fine Hullism – we always brag about our bargains!”
Two things really stood out to my wandering eyes. Firstly, I spied on top of his wardrobe a pile of criminology textbooks. He was taking some steps to alter his own path while still having a tag in situ – a most uplifting juxtaposition, showing that this ‘have-not’ had decided it was time he ‘had’. Secondly, he had previously told me that his room was round the front. Now, he pointed to his curtains as he told me that he always sleeps with them open. A stargazer by default is what I’d instinctively presumed, but poetic instincts can be silenced as romantic and clichéd. “It’s because I’m nosy. I like to know what’s going on.” From one curtain-twitcher to another – this not only was the perfect answer, but also highlighted yet again that if we strip away our labels and limitations, we are all basically the same. I loved the fact that there was also a guest room for companions’ friends and family to visit. Why shouldn’t they be afforded the right to rebuild kinship and social ties?

We went down to the Apple Tree Café where I shook Billy’s hand firmly and thanked him for taking time out of his busy working day to satisfy my curiosity. Much has been expressed recently in the national and local media about the issue of rough-sleeping and homelessness in Hull, some of it ill-informed, much of it untrue and a lot of it discriminatory. I really wanted to find out more about the Rough Sleeper Outreach Support Team, which is another side to the work done at The Orchard. Unfortunately after an incredibly busy night, when staff returned to base, their time was hijacked by having to provide a media response. The media wanted to know what this team of people were doing to solve the problem of rough sleepers in Hull. The irony of this astounded me. They were actually stopped doing their invaluable work, gaining trust with rough sleepers, finding well-thought-out solutions and working flat-out, to answer the question, “How are you solving this?” It was obvious as an outsider that they were doing every possible thing they could and doing it superbly.

A cuppa at the Apple Tree Café ended my visit. I had actually heard more about the café than anything else before I came on this journey. I know people who go out of their way to eat, greet and socialise there and I completely understood why now. The whole place has a vibe that is drenched in positive energy. People aren’t judged or labelled, it hollers equality, empowerment and encouragement so loudly it’s hard not to hear it. The Orchard’s doors are wide open and welcoming. Yes, I like happy endings and positivity and I invariably try to draw them into my peripheral vision wherever I am. The Orchard gave me this without having to go looking too hard at all. Just to top off what was a fantastic morning, someone began playing a beautiful melody on the piano. When I asked who he was, I heard he was a neighbour who often pops by. How perfect – social integration at its finest happening in front of me.

So, this Christmas I will not be sending cards to my nearest, dearest and those in-between; I shall donate what I would have spent to Emmaus Hull. It is in very good hands with them. I wish them nothing but new beginnings, happy endings and a peaceful family Christmas. And Billy? I wish him everything he wishes for himself.

Mel Hewitt.
December 2017.

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