Skinny size me: some women dramatise their inner conflict by shedding weight. Photograph: Ben Stockey
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The anorexic statement

Trust me, notice me, feed me: every female body conveys a message. So, when a woman starves herself, what is she saying?

I knew a woman whose job it was to take anorexics to the swimming pool. She was an occupational therapist: eating disorders were her field. She worked at a nearby clinic and we bumped into one another from time to time.

I found myself curious about her work, or more truthfully about her patients, those singular modern-day martyrs to the cause of their own bodies. Without quite knowing why, as I have grown older I have become more interested in – it could even be said, more respectful of – what might be called the anorexic statement. Perhaps it’s because, as the 45-year-old English mother of two children, my body has little power of provocation or utterance; or rather, that what it’s said or tried to say through the years hasn’t seemed to have added up to all that much. Quite what constitutes the anorexic statement I’m not entirely sure. All the same, it has a great power of disruption. It’s a stray spoke under the wheel of things that otherwise have the capacity to hurtle on headlong: family life, fashion, the destiny of the female body. The statement might be: help me. Or it might simply be: stop.

My therapist acquaintance herself had not been allowed to be picky in life, growing up in a family of brothers on a farm in the Australian outback. She knew how to shoot, drive a tractor, ride a horse bareback. She had left that rough home and come to the UK, where every couple of years for the sake of change she moved job and town – Slough, Birmingham, Chelmsford – though her solitude and her line of work did not alter. She neither sought nor seemed to expect much in the way of pleasure. In the evenings she made a sandwich and read a book in her rented room; her main meal was lunch in the canteen at the clinic, where food was plentiful and cheap. This somewhat joyless attitude to nourishment could come as no surprise, given that she spent her days among females who regarded the ingestion of a teaspoonful of peas as a physical and spiritual crisis. Once a week she led them to the poolside, skeletal and pale, for all the world to see. Even at the swimming pool these curious beings detected the threat of penetration, of the outside coming in. They didn’t want to get in the water, not, apparently, because they felt self-conscious or exposed, but for fear that they might swallow some of it without its calorific content having been established.

The easiest thing that could be said about my acquaintance was that she herself was impenetrable. Her choice of career must have sprung from some initial attraction to or sympathy with the anorexic state, but most often what she appeared to feel for her waifish charges was irritation, even anger. Anger is a common response, it seems, to the anorexic statement. At the very least, returning from a day spent on the receiving end of that statement, my acquaintance was hard put to feel – as they say – good about herself. If the anorexic is someone for whom the relationship between female being and female image must, on pain of death, be resolved, it may be that she denies that resolution to those who cross her path. They become the witnesses of her vulnerability; as such, she is more real than they. Like with the ascetic of old, her self-denial is a form of chastisement, yet the extremity of her appearance is confusing. Being female, it seeks attention, but of an unusual kind. It asks to be mothered – yet what if its aim is indeed to challenge the reality of the mother-figure and overpower it, to triumph over her, to consign her to flesh and steal her image? The anorexic is out to prove how little she needs, how little she can survive on; she is out, in a sense, to discredit her nurturers, while at the same time making a public crisis out of her need for nurture. Such vulnerability and such power: it brings the whole female machinery to a halt. My acquaintance had tales of rudeness and tantrums and sulks, of behaviour more commonly read about in childcare manuals (of the kind whose purpose, we are told, is to “test the boundaries”), even of a degree of personal insult which at the very least, I suppose, mothers aren’t paid to tolerate. She had no children of her own. And so, in an admirable interpretation of the social contract, she recognised she had something in that line to give.

Jenefer Shute offers some riveting descriptions of such interactions, between the anorexic inpatient Josie and her carers, in her novel Life-Size. “In the body,” Josie chillingly muses, “as in art, perfection is attained not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Armed with this credo, she can exercise contempt on everyone around her (“They say I’m sick, but what about them, who feast on corpses?”), in what becomes a radical reliving of her primary experiences of nurture. And it needs to be radicalised: this is the moral value of the anorexic statement, that it asks questions not just of mothers or fathers or fashion editors, but of the whole societal basis for the female image. This time around, Josie can speak her mind. She can criticise the people who care for her; she can re-experience the powerlessness of childhood and know it for what it is. So unpleasant is she to the “freckled cow” who nurses her that she finally gets the reprimand she has apparently been asking for:

“Josephine, I must ask you please not to speak to me like that. I’m not your servant.” And then, unable to contain herself: “And would you please look at me when I talk to you? It really gets on my nerves.” Coldly, victoriously, I remain precisely as I am. She really should have more control.

Soon after, however, the 68-pound tyrant, having agreed at last to eat something or be force-fed through a tube, makes a revealing request of her nurse: “I want you to feed me,” she says.

My acquaintance found it hard to muster much interest in herself at the day’s end. She rarely went out or saw people: it was as though her work had bled her of confidence. She sought not public interactions but the determined security of her private boundary. In the evenings she changed into loose clothes, shut herself in her room, shut herself into a book. She wanted to be where no one could demand anything of her, like a depleted mother, except with none of the prestige of motherhood. She never kept company with men, and her female world was wholly predicated on an insidious notion, that certain women are there to give attention and others to receive it. Sometimes it seemed that her patients had indeed stolen her image and left her with nothing to trade, nothing to barter with for some share of the world’s interest. They had stolen her image and left her a mere body that could find no reflection or definition for itself. She went back home for a few weeks on holiday and returned browner, more animated, and heavier. All that meat they went in for, meat roasted over a fire and served at every meal. But more to the point, a world in which food was an entitlement and a human bond.

In her own world food had become a weapon: her evening sandwich and her indifference were a kind of savourless pacifism she exercised against it. She spent her days among people who denied themselves food in order to experience, perhaps, power, whose apparent intention to make themselves invisible made them, in fact, visible, who had discovered that by becoming less they became more. And no­where was this clearer than in the fact that they required her as their witness, for disappearing was no fun unless someone noticed you’d gone. But if anyone was disappearing, if anyone was becoming invisible, it was she.

The question of how she had come to be stranded in this place remains difficult to answer, but its source may lie in the very practicality – the tractors, the horses – she had crossed the world to escape. Denied her own experience of femininity, she had perhaps embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to find and serve these notable victims to the riddling perversity of feminine values. She could help them, sit with them while they wept and shrieked over a teaspoonful of peas, she who had never had the temerity to question or refuse anything she had been given; she who was not important enough, as it were, to be anorexic, for the hieratic significance of the anorexic body depends on it having been ascribed a value in the first place. Had she tried to starve herself on the farm where she grew up, she might simply have died: her protest, in any case, would not have been understood. She had taken photographs of this place, on her recent trip home. In order to capture its isolation, she had photographed it from a distance, recording the miles of surrounding scrubland in a sequence of separate frames that she laid one next to another across the table in a long connecting strip. Amid these featureless wastelands she defied me to locate her home, and though my eyes searched and searched the landscape it was true that I could find no evidence of human habitation. She laughed, with an unmistakable and strangely exhilarated pride, and laid her finger over a low brown shape that crouched amid the boulders and bushes that extended all around it, on and on to the white horizon. It was so small her fingertip covered it. “There it is,” she said.

It may seem superfluous for a 45-year-old mother-of-two to say that she does not exult in the life of the body, but let’s just call it a place to begin. At the very least, as a statement, it raises numerous lines of inquiry. One might be: is it obligatory, or even a moral duty, to take pleasure in one’s own physical being? Leaving aside for a moment the question of what definition of pleasure one could possibly arrive at in this particular hall of mirrors, is the value of the physical quest in any way comparable with that of the artistic, the emotional, the spiritual?

I understand the anorexic’s notion of pleasure far better than the hedonist’s. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the second kind of pleasure is consequent on the first, that the life of sensation can be accessed only from a place of perfect self-discipline, rather as strict religious practices were once believed to constitute the narrow path to heaven. The anorexic, like the ascetic before her, publicly posits the immolation of the flesh as a manifestation of a primary physical discontent she is on her way to escaping: she represents a journey whose starting point is disgust. Body is found to be not only intolerable to but weaker than mind – how, then, can its desires and yearnings be taken seriously? The anorexic statement suggests a second body, one that will be painstakingly encroached on and attained; and hence, a second template for desire. This second body will belong to its owner as the first did not: its desires, therefore, will be experienced as not shameful, but true.

The female form is inherently susceptible to this duality, but the difficulty with the anorexic statement is that once it becomes open to other readings it breaks down. At some point in the journey a line is crossed: the slim body becomes the freakish starved body, and one by one the anorexic’s grounds for superiority are discredited and revoked. She is not beautiful but repellent, not self-disciplined but out of control, not enviable but piteous, and, most disappointing of all, she is publicly courting not freedom and desire but death. Even she may find these things difficult to believe. How to go back, on that journey? How to retrace one’s steps? For in getting where she needed to go the anorexic had to sacrifice the concept of normality. In a manner of speaking she sold her soul. She can never be “normal” about food or flesh again. So, how is she meant to live?

If the anorexic arouses irritation, even anger, it may be this quitting of normality that is to blame, because the female management of normality is a formidable psychical task from which most women don’t feel entitled to walk away. By quitting it she exposes it, she criticises it as a place to live, and moreover she forces each woman who passes her way to choose between denial and recognition of her statement, disgust.

Is it disgusting to be a woman? Menstruation, lactation, childbirth, the sexualisation of the female body – in recognising these things as her destiny, a girl is asked to forget everything that her prepubescent instincts might formerly have suggested to her. In becoming female she must cease to be universal, and relinquish the masculine in herself that permitted her as a child to find the idea of these things disgusting indeed. Likewise that masculine is now embodied for her in men, so the question becomes – do men find women disgusting? The anorexic statement dispenses with that perspective. It returns the woman to the universality of the child, and from that fusion formulates itself: I find myself disgusting.

If it has become a cultural cliché that women want to be thin more than they want to be loved (the three most cherished words these days, so the saying goes, being not “I love you” but “You’ve lost weight”), and moreover that they want to be thin not for men but for one another, the general observer might be tempted to view this as making the case for male innocence (at last!), even male redundancy.

Yet, looked at another way, the male and the preponderance of male values are perhaps more culpable in the incrimination of the female form than ever. An eating disorder epidemic suggests that love and disgust are being jointly marketed, as it were; that wherever the proposition might first have come from, the unacceptability of the female body has been disseminated culturally. Is it possible that disgust has finally got, in the famed male gaze, the upper hand? From whom, after all, has a woman ever wished to hear the words “I love you” but a man?

In Life-Size, Jenefer Shute posits the anorexic state as having two separate sources, one in the female (subjective, mother) and the other in the male (objective, father). Between them they engender in the anorexic subject the confusion between being and image of which one might suppose her to be merely an extreme cultural example. Mother – the female body – is indeed the source of disgust, but it is father – if one can be permitted the leap of seeing father as analogous with male and, indeed, with society – who makes that disgust public and hence catalyses it into shame. Without father, mother might merely have passed her disgust silently on to daughter, where it would have remained as an aspect of her private, interior being. But father brings it to the surface: it is something not just felt but now also seen. These confirmations, in Shute’s narrative, of interior suspicion (am I disgusting?) by outward commentary (yes, you are) are fatal to female self-perception in ways that might seem obvious but are none­theless intractable.

Outside and inside – image and being – are now held to be one: the girl/woman revisits and tests this impossibility by becoming the observer – the male – herself, looking at and remarking on the bodies of other women. Naturally, the discovery that image can be changed is not new: it is and always has been part of becoming a woman, in a sense that, although slenderness has long been a feminine ideal, self-hatred and the compulsion to starve oneself to death have broadly not. The question of disgust returns, accompanied by its shadow, the question of pleasure.

A personal admission: not long ago, in a period of great turmoil, I lost a considerable amount of weight. The first thing to say about this is that I was unaware, inexplicably, that it had happened. That my clothes no longer fitted passed me by: I noticed it only because other people told me so. They appeared shocked: each time I met someone I knew, there it would be, shock, a startled expression on the face. At first, I was startled in turn. They were not seeing who they expected to see; who, then, were they seeing? After a while I got used to it: indeed, I came to expect, almost to require it. A newborn baby needs to be mirrored by another human being in order to grasp that she has an outward surface, that this “self” has an appearance, that her image speaks. Through the shock of others I learned that I, too, had been shocked, that I was no longer the person I once was. My image was speaking, to me as well as to other people, telling me things I did not yet appear to know or realise.

But eventually the question of “normality” returned, as it must in the life of a 45-year-old mother-of-two. Stop, help me, feed me: this may have been my cry, but the truth was there was no one, any more, to answer. There could be no illusion, as an adult; I had left it too late to stage this apotheosis, this defeat of the first body, predicated as it is on the expectation of rescue. I had to draw back from it myself. And this was where the problem arose, because, like the anorexic, I found I could not retrace my steps, could not, as it were, go back to sleep. For years I had lived in my body half-consciously, ignoring it mostly, dismissing its agendas wherever I could, and forever pressing it into the service of mental conceptions that resulted, almost as a by-product, sometimes in its pleasuring and sometimes in its abuse. People were always telling me I should do yoga: this was one of the running jokes I had against my own flesh, for the idea that I would suspend the intellectual adventure of living even for one hour to dwell in the dumb and inarticulate realm of the auto-corporeal was as unappealing as that of spending an evening with someone I disliked. Now, as the weeks passed, instead of shock, my appearance was beginning to elicit milder manifestations of concern. I didn’t know what it meant: had I changed again? Was I no longer fragile and vulnerable? I had no idea. Never before in my life had I dared to be fragile, and all I knew was that I wasn’t ready to leave what I had become. “Have you ever thought of doing yoga?” someone said.

As a teenager I had been tormented by hunger and by an attendant self-disgust, for I saw in other girls a balance, an openness of form, that suggested they had nothing inside of which they need be ashamed. Their bodies were like well-schooled ponies, handsome and obedient, whereas I had a monster inside me whose appeasement was forever disrupting the outward surface of life. It craved so many things it could barely discriminate between them, and so indiscrimination – the failure to distinguish between what mattered and what didn’t, what helped and what didn’t, what it needed and what just happened to be there – became its public nature. It wanted, in fact, what it could get, in the light of what it couldn’t.

How thoroughly the tangible and the in­tangible confused themselves in those years. Creativity, the placement of internal material into space, the rendering tangible, became my weapon against that confusion.

When I left my boarding school – the blue serge uniform and the Cambridgeshire drizzle, the plates of stodge that were so predictable and real, the torturing sense of female possi­bilities that were not – I learned to manage the monster, more or less. Like the first Mrs Rochester it had a locked room of its own, from which it sometimes succeeded in breaking free to rend into shreds my fantasies of femininity, but I had set my mind on higher things. By locking up the monster I was making myself at heart unfree: what did I know of freedom in any case? I was accustomed to fantasy and to the safety – albeit uncomfortable – it supplied, and the notion of an integrated self was the most uncomfortable fantasy of all. In a sense, it was the monster: I could neither kill it nor live with it, and so there it remained, caged, bellowing and banging intermittently through the years, creating perhaps the sense of something amiss in those who came close to me, but caged all the same.

Yoga, understandably enough, was out: nothing could have persuaded me to enter that cage armed only with a sun salute. But my sudden emaciation in middle age did bring me into contact with the monster again, for, amid all the other losses, there in the rubble of the desecrated life, I appeared to see it lying dead at my feet. The Jungian notion of the “middle passage”, in which at mid-life all the templates for self expire or fall away, in which with sufficient destruction one has a chance to return to the blankness of birth, might have explained that death well enough to avoid detection: it simply went up in the fire, the horrible secret, along with everything else. And here, after all, was a chance to be free of my own image, the bind in which my body had held me for all these years, because, while wanting more than anything to be feminine, I had only and ever found my own femininity disgusting. This image, knitted together over time by questions and confirmations (Am I disgusting? Yes, you are), was one I was now prepared to sustain: I was poised to make the anorexic statement, to vanish, to let image and being finally become one.

But of course, no such thing occurs: there is no “letting”, no seamless transposition of the flesh. The anorexic body is held in the grip of will alone; its meaning is far from stable. What it says – notice me, feed me, mother me – is not what it means, for such attentions constitute an agonising test of that will, and also threaten to return the body to the dreaded “normality” it has been such ecstasy to escape.

For the first time since my teenage years I found myself tormented again by hunger: the monster had awoken from its slumber, bigger and more ferocious than ever. The route back to normality being blocked, I have had to devise other ways of getting there, or of seeming to. My occupational therapist acquaintance tells me that many of her patients are women of my age, women who have suddenly tried to slip the noose of their female flesh once its story – menstruation, lactation, childbirth – has been told in all its glory and shame.

When I relate this to my female friends they take it humorously, rolling their eyes and laughing, gallantly owning up – oh yes, they say, we know – to monsters of their own. Most of them haven’t delivered themselves into its jaws quite so thoroughly as I have; their dislike of their own bodies is a kind of low-level irritant, a necessary component of the female environment, but to think about it too much would spoil everyone’s fun.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, either, though for now I have spoiled my own. It did seem, for a while, as though the death-state of physical denial might contain the possibility of transcendence, the chance to step out of my self-disgust and make true contact at last: contact of my “real”, my second, self with the outer world. That I felt this had always been denied me, that in the negotiation between being and image all, for me, had been lost, was a stark kind of truth to face up to. Passing other women in the street these days, I seem to hear their bodies speaking. A lot of what they say is unclear to me, or at the very least so foreign that it takes me a moment to translate it. For instance: I accept myself. Or: respect me. The ones I like best are the ones that say, trust me. What I will never be able to hear unequivocally, whether whispered or shrieked, is: desire me. Notice me, feed me, mother me. Passing by the anorexic girl, stepping lightly and silently in the shadows, I hear her message and in a way I salute her for it. Other bodies have other messages, but for this one I have ears.

Rachel Cusk is most recently the author of “Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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A 21st century workhouse or a second chance? My life as an Emmaus Companion

Homelessness charity Emmaus takes in the desperate. But does it show them a way out again? 

In the summer of 2013, towards the end of my final year at university, I found myself homeless. Before I had started my studies, I lived and worked in Oldham. As I was a care leaver, I was receiving support from the council’s vulnerable adults team. When I started my degree, however, I moved to Mossley in the neighbouring borough of Tameside. The rent was cheaper and the flat was closer to my family. But with the move, I lost the support from Oldham Council. At the time, this didn't cause me great concern. I thought: "I don’t need to be babysat anymore." I was wrong.

I wasn’t ready to look after myself. During my finals, I fell into heavy arrears with my landlord, I was living alone, and White Storm and Scrumpy Jack had taken over from my support workers. I first became aware of Emmaus during this time, when I befriended residents of the Mossley community at their evening drinking haunt, the “Beach”, a sandy bank on the River Tame situated behind a derelict factory.

They told me how they were all formerly homeless and that Emmaus had provided them with sanctuary in return for 40 hours’ work a week. After our meeting on the Beach I didn’t really think about the charity again – until I found myself living on a campsite a few months later.

“Somewhere I can recover my self respect”

“If you are suffering, whoever you are, come in, eat, sleep, and regain hope. Here you are loved.” Abbé Pierre’s words are at the heart of what Emmaus claims to offer Britain’s homeless. Pierre, a Catholic priest and former member of the French Resistance, founded Emmaus in 1949. He began by taking homeless people off the streets in Paris and had them recycle old rags to earn their keep. The Emmaus model in the UK is not too far removed from the one that Pierre founded, only now Emmaus is a secular organisation, and predominantly trades in second-hand furniture.

Emmaus communities in the UK accept people who have experienced homelessness and social exclusion. Those who are accepted are referred to as Companions. They receive accommodation, food, clothing, and a small weekly allowance in exchange for 40 hours of work in the Emmaus social enterprise. But for Companions to earn “love”, they must adhere to a strict set of rules. They must not bring non-prescription drugs or alcohol onto the premises. They must relinquish all claims to state benefits apart from housing benefit, which is claimed on their behalf. They do not have employment or conventional renting rights. Legislation has specifically excluded them from receiving the minimum wage, and they are not allowed to receive any extra income apart from the weekly subsistence allowance.

Emmaus came to the UK 40 years after it had been established throughout France. The first community in the UK was opened by a Cambridge businessman, Selwyn Image, who reportedly drew inspiration to start Emmaus from a conversation with a homeless man at a soup and sandwich shelter.

The man told Image what he wanted was “somewhere where I can work, where I feel I belong, and where I can recover my self-respect”. Later, he recalled work experience he had done at an Emmaus community in Paris. He reached out to Abbé Pierre and received his blessing to open the first Emmaus community in Cambridge in 1991.

Today Emmaus UK is the largest movement outside France, with 29 communities spread across the country. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, is a patron, and the president is the former assistant to an Archbishop of Canterbury, Terry Waite.

The aims of the organisation have fit in snugly with conservative ideas of community and volunteerism. In 2011, shortly after the Conservative-led coalition government took power, a House of Commons select committee report stated: “We regard the challenge to government presented by charities such as Emmaus as a litmus test of the government’s Big Society project.”

“You are walking on eggshells”

When I entered Emmaus Mossley, I felt relieved that some structure and stability was being reintroduced into my life. After a while I began to feel normal again. I was working in a regular job, and I fell asleep in the same place every night. But as I spent more time with the charity, my feelings changed. Many of the Companions I was with had lived there for a long time, and even though they routinely complained about the community they had nowhere else to go. They were trapped.

I also began to notice that I was doing full-time manual labour for no pay, with no basic rights protecting me. I lived at Emmaus in two different communities for just over a year, but I never felt the “love” Pierre spoke of. Instead by the time I left the community I felt exploited, demoralised and angry. I felt like I was no more to them than a cog in a machine.

I left Emmaus Mossley in late 2013, but after some complicated housing issues I returned, this time to the St Albans community. There I met Leon Webster, 37, an electrical engineer who came to Emmaus after struggles with drugs caused him to lose his job.

Leon’s first impressions of the charity were similar to my own: he welcomed the sanctuary the community provided. But after a few months, his views changed too. He witnessed Companions being frequently expelled from the community: “You don't have a home, you live in this community but you don't have any rights as a tenant. You could wake up in a bad mood one morning, tell someone to fuck off or do something equally stupid, and that’s it you're back homeless again even if you’ve been in there for four or five years. You are walking on eggshells; if you cause trouble, you're out.”

He claimed that the rules were applied inconsistently in the community: "I think a lot of it is if your face fits, and if the staff like you.”

Dominic Smith, 22, another former Companion at Emmaus St Albans who now works as a magician, shared Leon’s fears of being thrown out of the community: “You could get ejected quite easily; people were kicked out left, right, and centre. It is quite daunting to think that if you lose your job you also lose your home. Usually those things are separate.”

Dominic described one incident involving an expulsion: “This guy was kicked out for drinking in his room. Then he started living at the back of the garden near the fence.” Dominic said he took pity on him, and brought him food in the evening: “They asked me why I was giving him food. I was given a verbal warning for doing that. They didn’t explain what rule I had broken.”

In response to Dominic’s claims, Emmaus said: “It is not unusual for companions to provide food for people living outside of the community and it is not something they would be reprimanded for. There is no record of any kind of warning being given to Dominic for passing on food.” 

The perception that the rules were not fairly applied was shared by a group of former Companions I encountered using a homeless relief centre in Deptford. They described a similar atmosphere at Emmaus Lambeth, in central London. Some of them had received short-term bans and were hoping to re-enter the community as they had nowhere else to go. Because of this, only Conor, a young man in his early twenties, agreed to be interviewed on the record. Conor said he didn’t feel valued in Emmaus and that the charity is run more like a business: “It was alright at the start, I kept my head down but trouble always seemed to follow me in there. They’ve got their own little cliques, and their favourites.”

I witnessed the inconsistent application of Emmaus’s rules first hand. During one particularly frightening evening at Emmaus St Albans I got into a confrontation with another Companion. After a brief scuffle, this person produced a knife. Before things got really serious, two other Companions broke it up.

The next morning, I had a very difficult time convincing staff to act appropriately to the situation; I told them that I was not prepared to live in the same community with someone who threatens people with knives. Eventually they banned this Companion from the community, but despite my vociferous protests they allowed him to return a month later while I was still living there. The Emmaus handbook stipulates a much longer ban for violent behaviour.

Emmaus said: “No companion should feel they need to 'walk on eggshells' and we work hard to ensure we are consistent with people. As a charity we do work with people with complex and varied needs, and it is important we ensure we can be adaptable to these needs wherever possible."

With regards to the knife incident, the spokeswoman said: "In this particular situation, which was witnessed by a number of people, a companion had been backed into a corner when he pulled a pen knife he had been carrying for work that day, from his pocket. When the altercation was broken up, he admitted he shouldn’t have reached for the knife, and left the community.

"When, at a later date, he applied to return to the community, Danny was consulted to see how he would feel about him living there again. While he did raise some concerns, Danny did agree that this individual should have a second chance and be allowed to return to the community."

In fact, I was never happy about him coming back, but I was worried about my own position in the community.

“You do become institutionalised”

In his book Socialism and the Third Way, Bill Jordan, a professor in social work, compares Emmaus to the Victorian workhouse: “At one level an Emmaus community in the UK could be seen as a privatised form of indoor poor relief – a workhouse, operated according to strict rules, with informal systems of surveillance amounting almost to a blood and guts panopticon.”

The same comparison struck me when I was living in the community. In the Victorian workhouse, paupers were admitted on the proviso that they worked for basic subsistence, and their behaviour was closely monitored; in Emmaus, homeless people must work in exchange for accommodation, food, and a small weekly allowance, and their behaviour is similarly controlled. But there are other parallels, too.

In the Victorian workhouse, some inmates stayed for up to 60 years. An 1861 parliamentary report found that “nation-wide, over 20 percent of inmates had been in the workhouse for more than five years.”

A similar institutionalisation is evident among Emmaus Companions. While most stay for no longer than two years, some have lived in Emmaus for more than 20 years and see the community as an end in itself, either because they are comfortable with the regime or they see no other way out of it.

One Companion I spoke to, who had been with Emmaus for a number of years, told me since the government was not helping her, Emmaus was "a godsend". She emphasised that the community had improved her confidence, gave her a routine, and offered her the support she needed. However, she also expressed her desire to have a place of her own: “This is great but this is not normal life," she said. "You can become almost institutionalised living here, because you don’t have to worry about everyday stuff. It’s like a giant big brother with all the stuff going on. You know little things blow up massively, and you can’t breathe without someone knowing about it.”

Another said that the support workers at Emmaus were “fantastic”, but his views about the future were nuanced: “I would like to move on, but I’ll be 61 in March and I’m coming up to retirement. It’s an odd one, when you get to my age you don’t know what to do. I probably would take my own flat and a job. You do become institutionalised in a way. After a while I think, is it worth going anywhere else or should I just stay here?”

Although Companions can be banned from Emmaus, the organisation does believe in second chances. In today's welfare system, it is quite common for a Companion to leave or be forced out, but to later request a return. 

But Leon, the electrician, thinks it is not just a case of individuals unable to find other options. He argues the allowance is not enough to help Companions make a quick transition to independence: “They pay you £35 and put £10 away for you. That £10 is supposed to be for a deposit. How long would it take you to get a deposit in somewhere like St Albans where you need a grand for the rent, and another grand for the deposit?”

Emmaus does allow Companions to live in the community for up to three months if they find a job, and can help furnish their new accommodation with donated furniture from its charity shops. 

The spokeswoman said Emmaus took "great pride" in not forcing anyone to leave before they were ready: "Those who are looking to move on are given support to do so."

“It's about regaining self-esteem”

I travelled to Birmingham in May this year, to interview Simon Grainge, chief executive of Emmaus UK, in his offices at the city’s refurbished Custard Factory. Grainge didn’t recognise the similarities between the charity and the workhouse: “I think that kind of thing very often comes around where people’s perception of Emmaus is not complete, shall we say, and I think that’s where people dip into it and they don’t fully understand it.”

He went on to describe how Emmaus provides people with a sense of purpose and belonging: “It’s about people regaining their self-esteem by being able to work and support themselves, rather than being in receipt of charity.”

Historian Simon Fowler agrees that there is a fundamental distinction between Emmaus and a workhouse: “I’d say the big differences are psychological, how the workhouse staff and managers treated the inmates. They humiliated and did their best to dehumanise them. Often it was deliberate ie putting family members into different wards and making them wear special cheap and nasty uniform. Sometimes it was subtler, that is the boredom that most inmates endured – there was little stimulus, particularly on Sundays.”

Thanks to electricity, central heating, modern medicine, and the Human Rights Act, the living conditions in Emmaus very different from the hostile environment that Oliver Twist found himself in. Companions still have to adhere to a strict regime, but their working uniforms are much more attractive, and there is no oakum-picking or stone-breaking. Companions have access to televisions and games consoles, they enjoy four weeks' holiday a year, and there’s more than meagre slops of porridge on the menu.

But even though Companions do not experience the kind of draconian treatment that Fowler describes, some do suffer distress. The lack of guarantees that Companions have mean that even those who have lived and worked in Emmaus communities for up to 20 years do not have assured tenancies or employment rights. They can be dismissed from the community at the drop of a hat, or more often, as Professor Jordan observed, “a can of lager”.

“It was the hardest job I've had”

The work that Companions do is obligatory, so there is a strong argument that they should they be considered employees, and have the rights that come with that status.

The test on whether someone is an employee is broad-ranging, but key elements are “control” and “mutuality of obligation,” says Paul Johnson, a solicitor from the Oldham Law Centre who has practiced employment law for more than 30 years. “It appears to me that Emmaus have total control over when, where and how the Companions work."

There is also a mutuality of obligation – Companions are obliged to work 40 hours, and Emmaus must provide subsistence in return. Johnson says that this does not mean that a Companion would necessarily win if they took a claim to an employment tribunal, but says the “prospects of winning seem good”.

It is also possible that Companions should in fact be considered tenants, and therefore have the rights that come with that status, too. 

Companions sign a Right to Occupy agreement when they enter Emmaus, and they are told this is under a licence. A licence can be terminated on giving reasonable notice and does not confer the protections against eviction provided under the Housing Acts (formerly the Rent Acts).

Johnson says that even if an agreement says it is a licence, it doesn't necessarily mean it is one. In the leading case on this subject (Street v Mountford) the Right to Occupy agreement said that it was a licence, but the House of Lords decided that it was a tenancy and that the Rent Acts did apply.

Johnson adds: “On the basis of the decision in Street, it could be argued that Companions have exclusive possession of their rooms, even though Emmaus has reserved a right to enter, and therefore the Companions are tenants.” This argument, too, has yet to be tested in court.

Grainge rejects the idea that Companions are more vulnerable to unfair treatment due to their lack of legal protections. He argues that it is appropriate for Companions to not have these rights, as he does not think the charity could function if they were given employment contracts. He also does not believe that Companions should have tenancy rights because Emmaus is no different than any other hostel where people don’t have assured tenancies. “When people come into our communities they are very vulnerable,” he explains. “They have drug, alcohol, addiction issues; mental health issues."

Grainge also argues that the comparison with a typical worker is incorrect, as many Companions would not actually be able to work as an employee: "I’ve seen that with many Companions who have actually moved on from communities and gone to work for an employer, and it hasn’t worked for them.”

He says “huge allowances” are made for Companions that ordinary employees wouldn’t enjoy, such as time off for routine appointments at the doctors and probation services: “What kind of employer do you think would accept 20 to 30 fag breaks during the day, and the ability to say, ‘I’m not functioning today I need to go to my room’. All that sort of stuff goes on, on a regular basis in communities.”

The work at Emmaus can be very labour-intensive. One of the key roles is portering furniture, which involves a lot of heavy lifting, often up and down several flights of stairs. When I put this to Grainge he said: “It is exactly the kind of labour that many other people are expected to do on the minimum wage,” and then reiterated that the “huge allowances” made for Companions means that they are not ordinary employees.

Of the Companions I spoke to, all of them without exception agreed that the work is hard. Dominic, one of those who left Emmaus, said: “Everyone took their work very seriously, if you didn’t work you were asked to leave. Every job I’ve had after Emmaus was easier; it was the hardest job I’ve had.”

Even if Companions were to win status as employees, they would still not be entitled to a wage, however. A amendment to the National Minimum Wage Regulations in 1999 exempts charities and other institutions from paying workers, if prior to entering a work scheme they were homeless or living in a hostel.

It seems this amendment was passed with Emmaus in mind. During a debate in the House of Lords in 1999, The Lord Bishop of Ely cited Emmaus UK as an intentional community that is “a modern off-shoot of the monasteries which are very much a feature of our culture. They are places where men and women practise an extremely modest way of life as a vocation in order to benefit their fellow human beings.”

One could argue that Companions do receive remuneration in exchange for their labour in the form of accommodation, food, and their allowance. However, Companions do not work in exchange for their accommodation as this is covered by housing benefit. In St Albans, the amount someone living in shared accommodation can claim in housing benefit is £78.50 per week. But this cap does not apply to claimants living in supported accommodation, and before I left the St Albans community in 2016 I was receiving £182 per week in housing benefit. 

This cost to the taxpayer is addressed in a 2008 economic evaluation undertaken by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research, which is often cited in Emmaus’s promotional material. The evaluation, which used the Village Carlton Community as a case study, claimed that the hypothetical annual saving to the taxpayer from housing 27 Companions in Emmaus rather than in alternative accommodation is £557,362.

The reporting mechanisms used, however, can be questioned. The figure is based on interviews with just 11 Companions in one week of the year. 

“Emmaus was there for me when I was at my lowest”

I was eventually evicted from Emmaus St Albans in January 2016, for reasons that were entirely justified. Emmaus communities are insular places where every move you make is under close scrutiny, and after six months I felt as if the walls were closing in on me. I was at odds with the staff, not only for allowing the Companion who threatened me with a knife to return, but for the inconsistent way they treated other Companions too.

One day, I was delivering furniture with a Companion that I didn’t get on with. I can’t recall what the argument was that day, but it ended with me demanding that he pull the van over so I could get out and walk home. Before I got out I punched the windscreen, shattering it. The day after the incident I was told by the support manager that I was banned from the community for 28 days, and was given a week to find alternative accommodation.

Emmaus did not work for me, but it does work for others. Many Companions adjust well to the structures in Emmaus, in part because their existence prior to moving in were so austere and the state-run alternatives can be very bleak.

The Companions who suffered the most outside of Emmaus are the most enthusiastic about the charity. One I spoke to came to the UK to escape persecution in his country of origin. Before he was accepted into Emmaus he described himself as being mentally and physically broken.

“I was almost finished before I came here,” he says. “This is a wonderful place for people who temporarily cannot manage their lives. Doing work is much better than sitting idle, as it makes you ill.” He acknowledges that “voluntary work is compulsory to stay here”, but says he is “very happy, as it's good for my health and social wellbeing. And I’m satisfied that I’m doing something for people like me.”

Many more Companions see Emmaus as their home, and fully support the ethos of the charity. Gary, a Companion who I met while at Emmaus Mossley, told the Emmaus website that life in the community had given him the opportunity to do things he couldn’t have done on his own: “Emmaus was there for me when I was at my lowest, and has helped me to rebuild my confidence and my life. I can say with all sincerity that I honestly don’t know where I would be without Emmaus, it really doesn’t bear thinking about.”

And then there are people like Michael Leadbetter. Michael was from Hull, and had lived in the Mossley Community for six years when I met him there in 2013. He was from a generation of working-class hippies who – hypnotised by Pink Floyd and Sixties psychedelia – dropped out, and never quite managed to drop back in.

Michael was found dead earlier this year in the River Tame near Mossley. His death shouldn't have surprised me; I'd witnessed him – paralytic on black lager and co-codamol – fall over walls, into the canal, down steps, and over his shoelaces on many occasions. I can recall people telling him that if he ever fell into the canal on his own he'd be in dire straits.

Michael was a hopeless drunk, and an incredibly warm and intelligent man. Even after three litres of White Storm he would still humiliate me on the chess board. He was also fond of taunting me at every opportunity. At Emmaus Mossley our rooms were next to each other, and Mick would blast out Bonzo's Dog Band's "Slush" every morning, as he knew that the maniacal laughter that loops throughout the track really freaked me out. He also enjoyed preying on my lack of work experience by asking me to fetch a long stand, tartan paint, or a left-handed screwdriver.

Many Companions like Mick are far better off within Emmaus's walls than left to their own devices. But the fact that formerly homeless people have seen a material improvement in their circumstances does not alter the fact that many Companions have had negative experiences. I am not the only one to have left feeling unsupported, unappreciated, and exploited by being forced to do unpaid labour just because I was unfortunate enough to end up homeless.

Just like the Victorians with their workhouses, we in the 21st century still behave as if homelessness was the result of an individual's moral deficiencies, rather than the result of political choices and social ills.  

The homeless are the only members of our society who can be forced by poverty to work for no pay. It is surely wrong that, even if a charity like Emmaus works for some, so many vulnerable people have no choice but to submit to being institutionalised, stuck doing voluntary work that is compulsory for decades in a “community” from which they could be expelled at any time.

I would often chat with Mick after work about Emmaus. He understood my criticisms, he said, but maintained that the charity had saved his life. Mick said he was very proud of the work he did there, and felt like he was contributing to the wider community. He told me he intended to spend the rest of his life with the charity – and in the end, he did.

*Some names have been changed

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?