Even since I began blogging some 18 months ago, I have returned on several occasions to the subject of homelessness and in passing have considered various agencies and initiatives serving homeless folk in my town of Southend-on-Sea. More recently, I have looked at two organizations that have been making a positive impact on this town’s homeless needs: Warrior Square Soup Kitchen and 57 West.

I realize there are a number of other agencies making significant contributions that I have barely mentioned, such as STARS, Family Mosaic and the Storehouse project, and in due course I may consider these in more detail. There are also the statutory services that have a bearing. But most significant, if the number of homeless people that it significantly helps is anything to go by, is HARP (Homeless Action Resource Project to give it its full title). For those interested in what HARP does etc., I refer them to the HARP website, and what it does do is both impressive and remarkable.

Before discussing HARP in greater detail, it may be useful to set out three main principles (there may well be more) that I employ as I exercise my remit as a homeless activist. The first is along the lines of my chess playing philosophy that when it comes to winning chess games it is about getting into a superior position in order to win the end game. The same goes for helping the homeless; little else matters compared with trying to get folk into a better place, and for that reason one can give up much, put aside ego and work with and support disparate partners in order to realize this goal. The second is to be skeptical. Things are often not what they seem and when presented with a situation, typically to do with some difficulty a rough sleeper is facing, there is often more to it than you realize and until you can see the bigger picture you will not know what this is. Thirdly, while quick fixes can be made when helping the homeless, usually solutions are arrived at when time and effort is expended, more often than not with people working together to help. It is well to be reminded that we are in a marathon, not a sprint and sometimes satisfactory solutions are arrived at when disparate partners manage to complement what each does.

As a homeless activist, I find myself involved in all sorts of initiatives to help rough sleepers. It continually moves me when I get to work with those who want to help. Part of my remit, given I know more than most on homeless related matters, is to encourage such folk. One of my roles is Chair of Southend Homeless Action Network (SHAN) which tries to do just this – bringing together the different interests in order to make a difference. The other significant role is keeping in touch with individual rough sleepers, and while trying to avoid taking on cases, I do try to help such folk as best I can, often by simply listening to their stories, trying to empower them, affirming their worth, doing small acts of kindness according to the situation I find and pointing them in the right direction.

I recently gave a short presentation to some folk who were involved with helping the homeless. The efforts of those attending on behalf of the homeless were commendable yet we needed to realise there is a lot we weren’t able to do. I made the point that while we were able to help feed and clothe the homeless, and show human kindness, we must recognize our limitations and involve others who can help, when better placed to do so, especially regarding housing and support needs. For this reason, in most cases, when I speak with rough sleepers, especially those who have not yet learned the ropes, I tell them to present themselves to HARP. Besides doing the things mentioned on their website, they may be able to help in the providing of accommodation and support and sign post people elsewhere if unable to offer help themselves.

One of those who was listening to me was somewhat dismissive of this advice and suggested that HARP do not always help as we might hope and expect. Often I do hear other HARP criticisms; the most recent one coming from someone supporting a rough sleeper and claiming that person had been turned away from HARP for no other reason than he did not have a local connection. I should make it clear that when I hear these comments my skepticism comes into play and often when I do find out the alternative perspective it is not as it might have first seen. The truth is, HARP do not always get it right and they operate with considerable constraints – limited resources, clients who present as a risk or fail to engage, a shortage of suitable accommodation and limitations on who they are able to accommodate due to  funding constraints and reliance on benefits.

While my advice to those who want it, is that it is necessary to try every avenue and engage wherever necessary, they will also do well to engage with HARP to help with some of their basic needs and maybe some of their other needs, especially around support on lifestyle issues (drug and alcohol abuse and mental health remain major needs) and other matters relating to the situation they are in, as well as that of  accommodation, of which there remains a shortage. But as I pointed out in my recent Rough Sleeper Leaflet post, while there is a lot of help out there, there is also a lot of need and realistically we are a long way from meeting all those needs.

Given what HARP seeks and is able to achieve, which when you think about it is phenomenal, when it comes to supporting many of the many rough sleepers living in Southend, they do a lot. They deserve recognition as a, maybe the, major player when it comes to helping the homeless. Given though there remains many unmet needs and gaps when it comes to helping people with their needs, there is room for a lot more to be done. While recognizing that all individuals and groups have different things to offer and different perspectives, we do well to work with as many interested parties as we can, in order to win the end game, and work toward eradicating rough sleeping, and also helping rough sleepers to enjoy a better quality of life. For many rough sleepers, what is needed most, more than any material help, is a transformed life and being thereby empowered. That is often beyond the ability of any single agency to achieve and remains perhaps the greatest challenge facing us all.

Update 27/07/15: As is often the case in the world of homelessness, things change very quickly even though many of the fundamentals remain unchanged. Recently, it has come to my attention that HARP now charge for some of their services e.g. provision of food. I have noted the criticisms from rough sleepers and some who serve them, but I also recognise HARP may well have good reasons for this change in policy. While I have private views and sometimes I share these on my other blog postings and with those involved, I am reluctant to take sides on this matter and will continue to maintain an independent position that recognises the need to work with disparate parties without either publicly criticising or endorsing what they do.

My most provocative thought is that in my town, as is the case throughout the country, there are organisations, like HARP, that have been started by Christians where the Christian ethos which had heart at its core has been watered down in the interest of survival, attracting funding and to accommodate other agendas, often government led.  Sadly, not all who follow in the steps of these pioneers possess the same heart they did. I have seen (and this relates to probably every agency dealing with homelessness) sometimes a woeful lack of integrity, discretion and wisdom. It is necessary to adapt but often something is lost in the process. To the churches shame, they have failed to hold their nerve and support those who began these works with a good heart. This is not just about HARP but also organisations like the YMCA, Citiizens Advice, Trust Links (all started by Christians), as wells as various new groups still feeling their way, many of which I have contributed toward and continue to do so.


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