Dominic Lawson: A Christmas hard-luck story and a glimpse into the lives of those struggling for self-respect

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The Independent Online

It was the story that no newspaper could resist. A once-famous television journalist who specialised in financial news was revealed as a down-and-out, sleeping rough on the windswept Brighton and Hove seafront. His name is Ed Mitchell, and in his time he had interviewed five chancellors of the exchequer.

Almost exquisitely, given the current preoccupation with the problems of consumer debt, it seemed that the only reason why the 54-year-old Mr Mitchell was now living out of a sleeping bag sans family, sans job, sans everything was because he had not been able to handle his credit cards. Somehow Mr Mitchell had run up debts of 250,000 on no fewer than 25 credit cards, before being declared bankrupt, and forced to sell the family home in Portslade, a Brighton suburb.

"As a financial and business journalist, I must have been daft as a brush to get in this position," said Mr Mitchell, and the irony of his predicament was written up across the press as an illustration of the dangers of improvident lenders meeting over-enthusiastic borrowers Mr Mitchell even had the accolade of being interviewed along these lines by John Humphrys on the Today programme.

His local newspaper, the Brighton Argus, which broke the "story", immediately signed him up to read its morning bulletins, and declared that he had "touched the hearts of scores of Argus readers". It said that its website had been "overwhelmed with comments from readers offering sympathy to Mr Mitchell and from those with similar debt problems".

The only problem was that Mr Mitchell had been not so much "daft as a brush"; it was more a case of being drunk as a skunk. Within days of Ed Mitchell's new-found fame as a victim of unscrupulous lenders, his ex-wife and mother surfaced both clearly furious about his comments revealing the true story of the former newsreader's descent to the depths.

It turned out that Mitchell had for many years been an out-of-control drinker on an epic scale an alcoholic, in fact. He had been sent to the Priory clinic by at least one understanding employer, but to no avail. His unemployment was entirely a consequence of his alcoholism and so, therefore, had been his increasing indebtedness.

Of course, the credit card companies are not immediately absolved of all their sins, just because it turned out that Ed Mitchell's true story was more about drink than debt. Neither should Mr Mitchell be stripped of all sympathy, just because it turned out that he was the author of his own misfortune and had been less than honest about the real nature of his predicament.

Alas for him, the Brighton Argus's apparently inexhaustible fund of sympathy has already dried up: it hastily withdrew its offer of bulletin-reading duties, having noticed that the deluge of supportive email comments from readers had been rapidly succeeded by an equally impressive torrent of less kind-hearted correspondence.

So where should Ed Mitchell turn for support, now that he has been disowned even by those who had tried to make him out to be a martyr, if not actually a saint? Fortunately, there is a wonderful sanctuary in Portslade itself. It is called Emmaus Brighton & Hove (www.emmausbrighton. co.uk) and is the largest Emmaus Community in the British Isles.

As many readers of this newspaper will know, Emmaus is a worldwide organisation for the homeless which was started by the remarkable Abb Pierre in 1949. He named it after the village in which according to the Gospel of Luke Jesus appeared to two of his disciples very soon after his resurrection: they did not recognise him, but offered this stranger food and lodging.

The organisation became a mass movement during the unusually cold French winter of 1954, when homeless people were dying in their thousands on the streets and Abb Pierre broadcast a plea on Radio Luxembourg for donations of tents, stoves and blankets: his call also raised 500 million Francs from the people of France (a people not usually noted for great charity).

Now Emmaus is a movement spread across 50 countries, a loose confederation but with firm principles, which were explained to me by one of the residents of its Portslade outpost when I visited it a few months ago. Graham, who had been living on the same streets as Ed Mitchell before he was taken in by Emmaus, told me that the basic principle was that residents who are called Companions are not just given a bed for the night; "We are also given a reason to get up in the morning."

What this means is that every Companion is expected to work within the Community from 9 to 5. The main business is a second-hand shop, the biggest such enterprise in the south-east of England. It owns a large number of vans with the logo "second-hand superstore" which travel across Sussex picking up unwanted goods; these are then spruced up (or in the case of many electronic goods, repaired or reconditioned) and sold to bargain-hunters back in Portslade. There is also a caf open throughout the day and I can recommend its home-made cakes.

The Companions are required to give up unemployment benefit; instead they have free food and accommodation at Emmaus for as long as they want to stay there, plus 40 a week cash in hand. In the same spirit, Emmaus itself takes no money from the state, relying entirely on charitable donations and its own considerable enterprise. It sounds like a tough regime for the Companions, but Graham told me that it had been for him and for others like him the only alternative to complete oblivion and even suicide.

Christine Squince, who runs the business of Emmaus Brighton & Hove, explained to me that although a number of the Companions continued to have drink and drug problems, "we don't enquire what they spend their 40 on outside working hours, just as long as they don't bring any alcohol or drugs back into the Community".

Yesterday, I was going to ask Christine if Emmaus could do anything for Ed Mitchell, but then I found out the bad news from one of the Companions. Mr Mitchell had in fact recently been a resident at Emmaus Brighton & Hove; he had been very useful "at the front of house" in the caf. Unfortunately, he had been completely unwilling to abide by the rule against bringing booze back into the Community which was obviously distressing to other Companions who were trying so hard to abstain from drink themselves. So Ed Mitchell was cast out even from Emmaus.

As a Christmas hard-luck story, that takes some beating; but Emmaus would argue and I would agree with them that this Christmas we should reflect more upon the struggle for self-respect and companionship on the part of those who remain within their walls and whose lives are completely unknown to us.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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