Working Life: Ross Watkins of Emmaus Lambeth

The capacity builder at the homelessness charity talks about the challenges of his job

Ross Watkins
Ross Watkins

I started working in the homelessness sector after living on the streets myself. I used to work as a bricklayer and took on more work and debt than I could cope with - I had a breakdown. Instead of doing the rational thing of selling some of my tools, I packed my bags, walked out of my house and lived on the streets for six months. I got off the streets and into work with the help of a project in Camden.

My role at Emmaus now involves supporting service users, or companions as we call them, who are living at St Luke's – it's a community in south London for men and women who have experienced rough sleeping or homelessness.

I help them move into the building, gain access to training and work in our social enterprises, and eventually help them to live independently. I visit agencies across London to find new companions and get referrals from other hostels, day centres and outreach teams.

We're setting up the community at St Luke's in partnership with the West London Mission. We have only a couple of residents at the moment, but we plan to have up to 28 rooms. We would be able to fill the place tomorrow, but it's a community based on mutual respect, so it's about getting the right balance of people.

Working in the homelessness sector has its challenges. When I was an outreach worker, a service user pulled a knife on me. As much as these things shouldn't happen, I accepted that I was putting myself out there and these things can occur when working with people frustrated by the system.

At Emmaus, I work with people more directly to improve their lives. I'm generally based on-site, and I work nine to five – but often I have to take calls late at night. You can't switch off at 5pm.

One thing that is proving to be a nightmare at the moment is the recent change to European Union national benefit entitlements. Nationals from other EU countries now have trouble accessing housing benefit, which cuts out a whole group of people who we would like to help but can't currently work with.

Emmaus is a homelessness charity with communities in 24 locations across the UK. It provides a home and work to more than 600 people who used to be homeless, giving them time to get back on their feet

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