The history of Emmaus in the UK starts in 1989 when Cambridge businessman Selwyn Image was volunteering at a soup and sandwich shelter in the city. He was keen to find out what he could do to help from the people who were using the shelter.
In one particular conversation, a homeless man shot down every idea that Selwyn had. Increasingly frustrated, he asked: “Well, what do you want?” The man responded: “I would have thought that would have been obvious to an intelligent man like you. I want somewhere where I can work, where I feel I belong, and where I can recover my self-respect.”
Then, in a sentence that would change Selwyn’s life forever, the man said: “And what are you going to do about it?”
Selwyn remembered some work experience he had done 30 years previously in Paris, when trying to brush up his French for a language exam. It was at a social enterprise that provided a home and work to people who had experienced homelessness, and it seemed to provide just what this man was asking for.
Not knowing if Emmaus even still existed, the next day Selwyn went to the library and picked up a Paris phone book. He managed to reach Abbé Pierre, told him he would like to open an Emmaus community in Cambridge.
Since the first community opened in the UK in 1991, Emmaus has grown quickly. There are now 29 communities spread across the UK, with a further five groups currently working to establish new communities. The UK is now the largest Emmaus movement outside of France.
There are now more than 850 Emmaus companions living at communities stretching from Glasgow to Dover. Each one has at least one shop or social enterprise, with many running successful cafés, shops, gardening projects and removal companies.
No two Emmaus communities are the same – each has its own individual personality, providing a set of services that meet the needs of its local area. For many, Emmaus offers a welcoming place to visit, to speak with companions, volunteers and staff.