A project to help the homeless will be something people in South Tyneside can be proud of, says humanitarian campaigner Terry Waite.
Mr Waite, who was held captive for 1,763 days after going to the Lebanon in 1987 as a peace envoy, is the president of Emmaus – a charity which has just bought a former children’s home in Stanhope Road, South Shields, with the aims of revamping it so it can be used by the homeless.
Mr Waite got involved with the charity after he was freed in 1991. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, told him about its work.
He said: “The Archbishop was the charity’s president at the time and that’s how I then became involved. He explained how it was a non-religious charity, which started in Paris just after the Second World War.
“As I had spent four-and-half years of my time in captivity in solitary confinement, I felt this gave me a good understanding of the people he was trying to help.
“These were people who had been cast away and were struggling to be reintegrated into society through no fault of their own.”
There are now 24 Emmaus communities spread across the UK, with a further eight groups currently working to establish new communities – including the one in South Shields.
Yesterday Mr Waite visited the new site in Stanhope Road and later gave a talk at the Customs House to explain how essential the charity is.
The 76-year-old said: “When we start creating a community, people often object. But once they understand how it works and meet those involved they realise what a wonderful thing it is.
“Nobody wants to be homeless and it’s something which can happen to anyone.
“Here in South Shields we are transforming an eyesore of a building into something which residents will be proud of.
“It takes about three to four years for a community to be self-sufficient and then people will be able to see the difference.”
In time the borough’s community will also acquire an additional premise where companions – which is what the charity calls its residents – will work.
To be part of the project, all companions must work and adhere to strict rules.
Mr Waite has ambitious plans for the future of Emmaus.
While laughing he added: “I’ve said I want to create an Emmaus community in ever major city before I die – that’s my aim.”