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Feels like home by Laura Berman

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

Walking along Kings’ Road in West Norwood, you may notice that 3 shops have the same name above the door: Emmaus. One sells bric-a-brac and furniture, one sells clothes and one sells white goods. The more curious high street wanderer might follow signs which lead them off the main drag and down a drive way to a two floor Aladdin’s cave of furniture and household goods, also bearing the name Emmaus. Return to these establishments regularly, and you will see some familiar faces behind the counters and perhaps even get to know them as neighbours. Emmaus is not just a chain of charity shops, it is a network of communities around the world where individuals live and work together to build a life for themselves, and a life out of homelessness. Many of these communities occupy former buildings such as convents, schools or residential homes but some, such as Emmaus Lambeth, operate in purpose built dwellings.  

Following the acquisition of the retail units on King’s Road, Emmaus Lambeth worked with Sheppard Architects (formally Lloyd Sheppard Architects) to transform a disused tram shed, which sat behind the street front, in to a furniture warehouse and accommodation block. Together with the retail units, these buildings became solid, functioning spaces that would go on to house a community of men and women that had found themselves homeless.

As a resident, or “companion”, of an Emmaus community, a person can stay for as long as required to get back on their feet. Companions receive free accommodation and food, and are required to work 40 hours per week within the charity’s social enterprise. A community’s buildings act as both a house and a work place for the companions – the everyday uses that most of us spread across and beyond cities. The architecture needs to work harder than most buildings; not only do the buildings support a 24hour work/rest cycle, but the buildings need to provide a safe environment in which a high-needs user can be rehabilitated and break the cycle of homelessness.

When I volunteer at Emmaus Lambeth I am invited to join the companions for lunch and on a recent shift a new companion was amused that I seemed to ‘know my way around’ while I was helping myself to a glass of juice, plate of food in hand.  It occurred to me that of the people that visit the Emmaus Lambeth buildings, few would get the opportunity to come into the residential block.  Although it was only my third shift in as many months I realised that from the moment I walked into the residential block, I was made to feel at home. However, the most important experience of these building is not my own, but that of a companion.

Many high-needs end-user groups have specialist buildings, with designs that specifically target the needs of both the users and those that look after them. But those that find themselves homeless are often suffering many, complex issues such as mental health, relationship breakdown, addiction and financial trouble. While the one thing that defines this group is the lack of a home, this label hides the fact that there is often a tangled web of problems that leads to a person becoming homeless. And, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution - having a house isn’t always enough to stop someone being homeless.

The very first Emmaus companion was a homeless French man named Georges. After a failed suicide attempt he was taken to a priest and MP in Paris called Abbe Pierre, who not only offered him accommodation but asked him to help other homeless people in the community. Georges said of Abbé Pierre “Whatever else he might have given me – money, home, somewhere to work – I’d have still tried to kill myself again. What I was missing, and what he offered, was something to live for.”  Images of Abbé Pierre are dotted around the Emmaus Lambeth buildings, a reminder that the ethos of the charity is to offer more than just a roof over someone’s head.

While the provision of shelter alone may not be enough to stop someone being homeless, we mustn’t diminish the importance of architecture in the rehabilitation process.  It is a well-established fact that our health, both mental and physical, can be greatly affected by our environment.

Unlike many of the Emmaus communities which inhabit existing buildings, much of Emmaus Lambeth was purpose built and as such was designed around the needs of the user. For example, each companion has their own private, en-suite room which offers privacy; there is a communal space, with sofas and a TV, but a sectioned off computer suite; and within the accommodation block are the charity’s offices, which are easily accessible for companions and staff and offer confidential meeting spaces.

The companions dart around the buildings, many of which are physically connected, delivering donations to the right retail unit, organising deliveries across the warehouse or getting stock from the basement.  Initially it feels a bit maze-like, with all the interconnected spaces but once you get to know the layout, it aides the processes of the day rather than hinders them. The buildings have to function in different ways individually, but work together successfully – much like the companions themselves.

The design of Emmaus Lambeth is not a physical representation of an architect’s persona or design principles and could be seen instead as a stripped back portrayal of the often repeated mantra ‘form follows function’.  However, it would be wrong to assume that there is no meaning at all behind the design.  The architecture is thoughtful to the very particular need of an Emmaus community and the wide ranging, complicated needs of the homeless. Like the meaning of word ‘homelessness’ itself, the architectural response to ending homelessness may appear to be straightforward but, in reality, it is a lot more complex that first meets the eye.

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