"I was happily-married with three children and a good job. Then my wife died. I just couldnt cope. I sought help from the bottle... Inside a year, Id lost my job, my house and my kids. I ended up on the streets. Then, one day, I decided enough was enough and went to the Emmaus Community in Cambridge."
When you read the words of a man like John, its hard to fathom why, until recently, Emmaus had cause to regard itself as one of Britains best-kept charity secrets.
If the task of running and growing its 22-strong federation of Communities is a tough challenge, the relative national anonymity has hardly made it easier. Its been that way since the day in 1990, when Cambridge soup kitchen volunteer Selwyn Image casually asked a homeless man what he wanted.
"I want to work and belong," he replied. "I want my self-respect back. I dont want to queue for handouts or beg for food."
The answer struck a chord. As a student in the 60s, the successful businessman had answered a call for helpers at Emmaus Paris Community. He mentioned it to the man hed just fed.
"Well. What are you waiting for?" came the reply. He knew he had to bring it to the UK.
Within two years, using his network of connections, hed set up Britains first Emmaus Community with an ethos as fresh as it was rare in the me-me-me climate of the late 20th Century. In return for helping their companions to take responsibility for their own futures, all Emmaus required was an undertaking that old vices had been left behind, and that everyone worked for the common good.
Before long, there was a Community in Coventry too. By 1995, a third had opened in Greenwich and the Access database used by Jane Burton, the charitys first full-time employee, was struggling to keep up. Enter donorflex.
"We knew we had to get a proper database," she says. "We looked at Raisers Edge. It was a good system. But we were still small. We just thought, we cant afford this!
"Somebody I knew was chair of Birmingham Settlement. She took me round. John Williams worked there and I asked what he used, and he said donorflex."
They joined the growing ranks, but the database really started to come alive when Peter Teich, the charitys current information manager, arrived in 1999, and began making the valuable contribution that continues to this day. It was the first time the organisation had someone to concentrate on IT.
"At last, we had someone with the kind of mind that likes the challenge," she smiles.
donorflex remained predominantly a donation-recording tool until 2002, when Emmaus first researcher, Nancy Childerhouse, arrived with a brief to draw the information and fund-raising operations together and take the sophistication, professionalism and effectiveness of their prospecting on a quantum leap.
She soon realised that, although the database held valuable intelligence, the team needed a way to exploit it, to prepare the ground before approaching potential donors. The next step was pivotal.
She, Jane and Peter sat down with donorflex managing director Brian Todd for two days and emerged with the basis of one of the systems most potent tools, The Tracker.
"We needed to record biographical information," Nancy recalls. "I didnt have anywhere to put that on donorflex. We decided to use Extra Information and created different fields for biographical sections on the individual."
Since then, theyve developed five relationship reports on warm prospects, using different categories, reasons for inclusion, how much theyve given, how much theyre likely to give, target donations and Emmaus approach strategy.
"Those have been crucial in us developing our fund-raising strategy and in us using donorflex," she says. "Now I have it open every day."
Jane sees donorflex playing a vital part in the next five years as eight new Communities bid to open their doors. Its not hard to see why. With around 380,000 homeless people in Britain, demand isnt going to fall. Emmaus turns away well over 300 people a week because its beds are full. It takes around £1.5m to set up a new Community and around five years for it to reach the point where recycling and reselling furniture and electrical goods bring self-sufficiency.
By the same token, to give just one example, Emmaus Cambridge saved the Government and wider Community from spending £600,000 on training, health care, drugs treatment, recycling, housing and legal costs in 2004 alone.
If youre looking for a measure of how important that two-day meeting of minds has turned out to be, look no further than the fact that Tracker now maximises the diverse data that bears fruit for clients across all charity sectors the length and breadth of Britain. Like them, the Emmaus team has also spent early 2006 exploring the power of Version 7 and deciding how to exploit its new speed and functionality.
"Its absolutely vital," Jane says. "We need flexibility, and we have to feel theres a partnership so that, if we say "we have to do this", we can ring up and talk about it."
After years struggling to become the household name that its work deserves, the organisation was also adopted as one of the Daily Telegraphs Christmas charities in 2005, meaning that hundreds of thousands of readers now know why, for people like John, the Emmaus way works.
Its inspiring, its humbling, its compelling, and if your daily life occasionally leaves the need for this to happen it renews your faith in human nature. But dont take our word for it.
"One day, I decided enough was enough and went to the Emmaus Community in Cambridge," he says. "There I had my first home for almost eight years and real work. Emmaus is a good way to deal with homelessness. It gives people a purpose, not a handout. Coming here is one of the best moves Ive ever made. Its become my home, and the companions are an extended family."
The brilliant thing about donorflex is that you can make massive changes with it. You can input, in the way that we have, to create the things that you need" Nancy Childerhouse explains what its like working with donorflex in a busy fund-raising operation
The first Emmaus Community was founded in Paris in 1949 by Abbby Abbé Pierre, a Catholic priest, MP and former member of the French Resistance, with the help of a former prisoner called Georges whod been rejected by his family and, in his misery, failed to drown himself in the Seine.
Abbé Pierre offered him a place to sleep and asked him to aid his mission to help build temporary homes for those in need. In doing so, he gave George what he was lacking "something to live for".
Emmaus lasting ethos was established, two years later, when Abbé Pierre resigned as an MP, put his cassock and medals on and began begging in the citys smart restaurants for donations to help the growing Community of homeless people.
The Communitys companions were horrified. Begging for handouts was what they used to do, not how they wanted to start a new life. So Abbé Pierre turned to the rubbish tips of Paris, scavenging items that could be restored to use and be sold. The chiffoniers or rag-pickers had found their means of income and purpose. More than half-a-century on, there are more than 400 secular Communities in 39 countries doing remarkable work and fulfilling the mission.
In the UK, Emmaus supports a network of existing and planned Communities that stretches from Glasgow to Brighton and Cambridge to Exeter.