I started working with Emmaus Bristol as a trustee in 1998 when it was still just being formed. Tony Lane, who was setting it up, had an idea for a different approach to homelessness in Bristol. When the concept of Emmaus was introduced to him, he could see the potential for a community here and put his heart and soul into it.
Tony decided to put a small team of people who had various skills and experiences together, and it was then that I came onto his radar for my financial skills. I am an accountant by profession, and it was a good time for me because I was just finishing up two other charity commitments. I had a window to use and could take on something new. The rest is history and I’ve been involved ever since, more than 20 years later.
Working with Emmaus Bristol introduced homelessness to me. When I first got involved, my attitude towards people who were homeless was probably a bit arrogant. Pretty early on, I had a rude awakening that homelessness can happen to anybody. If you get a certain combination of circumstances, particularly if they happen simultaneously, any of us could end up on the streets.
There was one companion I got to know early on. He had run a very successful business of his own but overstretched himself, got heavily into debt, and turned to the bottle. Everything went belly up for him and he ended up on the streets. That was a big eye opener and has been quite the driver for me over the years. It’s made me thankful and grateful that I haven’t landed in that place too, and if I can do anything to help those who have, then that’s what I should be doing with my life.
Over the years, there have been many highlights and successes. An obvious one which comes to mind is getting our first property after a long search. It became quite a process identifying properties, viewing them, and having impromptu trustee meetings to decide whether it was worth engaging professionals to look at them closer. Finding the right building, getting locals on board, and raising the money to do it up was why it took five years to get the community up and running.
Eventually, we found a building that proved to be absolutely perfect in every way and the locals have been so supportive of us. We bought near Temple Meads station, which wasn’t the area of choice for people to live at that time. With development in Bristol generally, the area has improved a lot over the years, and we have worked very hard with the local community. We now have one residential building and another building near the main Bristol shopping centre for our offices, shop and warehouse, as well as two other shops in Bedminster and on Gloucester Road.
The loyalty we have received from supporters has been a real feel good factor too. In the early days, well before we had a building, we were trying to get money together for day-to-day activities. We had a social do with all interested parties and a man who later became Chief Executive at Emmaus Bristol made a speech. He encouraged people to set up standing orders that were the equivalent to a takeaway lunch – £5 or so. A lot of people did sign up to that, and a number of those standing orders are still running to this day. It’s really nice to see that long-term support and that’s what you really want as a trustee – to feel like you’re doing the right thing and going in the right direction. Emmaus Bristol has a wave of loyal support that we don’t often need to call upon but it’s comforting to know it is there.
We have also faced many challenges throughout the years. There have been financial challenges on and off, but we have such a brilliant staff team that we’ve had quite a few reasonable years. Thanks to that, we have been able to put money to one side which has helped throughout the pandemic, along with the help we received from the government and our Crowdfunder. The current Chief Executive, Jessica, is a real think-outside-the-box person and very good at exploring new ways to generate income. The current staff team and Board of Trustees get on well together too, and that’s what makes a stable ship.
One thing that always sticks in my mind about Emmaus is the idea of giving people a bed and a reason to get out of it. I rather like that. It sums up that we provide a decent home for people, but also a purpose to their life. To me, that’s what Emmaus is all about and what attracted me in the first place. It isn’t just a hostel, it’s far more than that. I’ve recently seen someone retrain on an IT course and it’s just great to see how we can help people help themselves.
Occasionally, staff will need to tell someone to leave if they are not following the relatively few rules we have. It’s not pleasant for staff or the other companions, but I think companions know themselves if someone is going to rock the boat. Emmaus Bristol is their home and it’s a fine balance in a community because these are all people who are vulnerable. If you are going to create stability, it doesn’t take an awful lot to upset that and companions are good at identifying potential issues.
My one regret over the years is that I don’t get enough contact with companions. The trustees are a little bit remote in that sense. We don’t like to be breathing down the necks of the staff, and therefore we’re not around all the time on site. We also don’t make it our business to visit companions in the residential building because it’s their home. We always wait for an invite – one year they put on a BBQ outside, so we went along, and we always attend the Christmas party. That’s when I get to chat to companions, which is lovely.
We’ve had our ups and downs over this 20 plus year period, but we’ve had some really good trustees, staff and volunteers. It has been wonderful to see some of the companions go through over the years and get their life back on track. It’s been a very exciting journey for me. I’m pushing 70 now, but I’m in no rush to leave the Board of Trustees.