A safe harbour

As many people’s thoughts turn to Christmas and the prospect of spending time with their loved ones, for others, December isn’t always the most wonderful time of the year.

But Harbour Place, Grimsby – a centre for rough sleepers in North East Lincolnshire – is a beacon of light for its many guests.

St Hugh’s Hospital has been proudly supporting the charity from the very beginning, when it first opened in December 1996, by providing regular hot meals and other food. For more than a quarter of a century, the staff in our kitchen department have been making meals and snacks, like sausage rolls, which are delivered once a week to the centre in Hope Street.

It was a bright, sharp day when we rang Harbour Place’s doorbell, laden down with plates of tasty food. Within minutes, the door was answered with a cheerful smile and equally bright hello, and we were ushered inside. The food was promptly delivered by John and Lisa, the volunteers manning the kitchen. They took a peek under the covers and sniffed appreciatively. “This looks good!” said Lisa, grinning. “Thank you – as always!”

Taking the chance to catch up with the good people of Harbour Place, we left them to it to chat with director Robin Barr and manager Denny Batty about why the charity plays such an important role within our community. Access to and the availability of hot food – or even just food – is thankfully a given for many of us, but it’s not that easy when you are a rough sleeper.

“Our connection with St Hugh’s is one of very long standing,” said Robin, “and it means so much to us. It’s hugely important because we rely on donations to support people in real need. To have an arrangement where we know food is going to be ready for us is enormously helpful, and it’s made a difference to a lot of people – not only those receiving the nourishment, but it also means that volunteering and staff time is freed up for other things.

“In the early days of Harbour Place, we simply didn’t have the funds to be constantly purchasing food. The certainty that St Hugh’s Hospital provides is so very valuable. It means the people staying in our night shelter know they can get sustenance. They absolutely rely on the knowledge that there will be a hot meal for them when they arrive. Many don’t have any other opportunity during the day, particularly during the working week; at weekends, there are other organisations in the area providing meals.”

“It’s also worth adding,” said Denny, “that we do the best we can to provide nutritional food ourselves, but that’s not necessarily our skillset – our experience in cooking can be limited, and to have an organisation on hand like St Hugh’s which has that experience is vital. It takes a bit of pressure off us.”

“That’s right,” Robin agreed. “I hasten to add that all of our staff are food hygiene trained, but we’re not Jamie Oliver!”

“It can be a complicated situation,” explained Denny. “When someone hasn’t eaten properly for a long time, actually their appetite is different. They often struggle to eat what we’d consider as ‘full’ meals, so it’s usually a case of eating small portions regularly. It’s not like coming in after a long walk and saying, ‘I’m hungry, I could really do with a Sunday roast.’ It’s not that sort of eating, so it’s just as much about making sure that what we provide is appealing enough to the guest but not daunting, too – and that way, they will come back, which is want we want most of all.”

Robin continued: “When people first come to us, they are often not in the best of states. This isn’t about sounding melodramatic; Harbour Place is sometimes the provider of last resort.

“Often the people we work with have been receiving help from other organisations but, for whatever reason, that relationship has broken down and they may have spent some time where they feel that nobody is interested in them at all. They are at a fairly low ebb when they come to us and probably haven’t eaten very well for several days, they haven’t had a shower or a change of clothing… all those sorts of things.

“For somebody then to start talking to them about helping them and finding somewhere for them to live is not going to be terribly well received, but if we can say ‘go get a shower and there will be hot meal waiting for you when you come out’, that can completely alter their mindset about getting support. It’s about changing how they feel about themselves, and sometimes it’s like greeting a completely different person, all because they’ve had some basic needs attended to. That meal is essential to everything else we do.

“We are actually then in a position where you can start to talk about other things, why they are where they are and how we can support them through that. It is a real opener to getting help.

“And even if the first two weeks they barely speak to us, but they come and get a meal every day, That difficulty soon starts to break down and we start to have a relationship with them.”

There are some guests with whom Harbour Place have been working for 10 years or more; there are some guests who are supported for a fortnight and are never seen again because their situation has been solved.

“But people know it’s always there,” said Robin, “and sometimes what happens is that people come around again, if they hit a hard time, for example, and they are in a circle.”

Denny said: “This is a place where you can be safe warm and dry, because until you can be fed have those basic needs catered for, until you’ve had a rest and you feel okay and able to talk, you’re not going to share anything because you’re still in that defensive mode.

“We’ve seen instances where someone is rough sleeping and somebody speaks to them, and the rough sleeper jumps up and is on the defensive. The reason is because they are scared, and here at Harbour Place we have to get by that before we can get down to the real nitty gritty of what can be done to help.

“The truth is that a lot of people we work with feel let down and don’t trust easily, which is understandable. That trust takes some time to rebuild. They feel adrift from us in many ways, that’s the reality.”

Rebuilding this trust can often take the form of a cup of tea, or a game of cards… sometimes, just a friendly face to have a chat with – not an interrogation or as a means of getting help, but a chat to pass the time of day, about the weather, the football. Quite often, the only contact rough sleepers have with others is on a formal basis; in other words, engaging with a service or an official on a perfunctory, practical level, not social. The message here is that something as simple as passing the time of day with a guest represents that most basic of human needs, something we might take for granted – that they have worth as an individual.

We asked Robin and Denny, from the outside looking in as people fortunate enough to not have experienced rough sleeping, if the general public is aware of these intricate complexities?

“I’d say the awareness isn’t there,” replied Robin. “We see things on television programmes and dramas, and it’s a pretty standardised version. But when you talk about how much people are enlightened to it in terms of giving and donating, in Harbour Place’s experience it’s surprising how many people are so understanding and so generous. We operate in quite a tough part of Grimsby, and people who have very little of their own knock on our door and give. In that way, people really are attuned to us.

“I don’t think even we’ve got to the bottom of all of the complexities, and we have worked at the heart of this issue for a long time. And I don’t think we ever will – everyone who walks through that door is a new story and in a unique situation.

“We are all going through hard times at the moment, in our own ways, and we’ve certainly notice that people are finding it harder to give, but generally I never cease to be amazed by how generous people are.”

It costs between £350,000 and £450,000 a year to run Harbour Place, the main cost being staff. Running in parallel are the amount of people rough sleeping in North East Lincolnshire, which has, say Robin and Denny, increased since the end of the coronavirus pandemic, as support provided during it has been withdrawn. What with the cost of living crisis we are experiencing, they are anticipating the numbers coming through the door to rise even more. And then there’s winter.

“We do a lot of advance planning for winter,” said Denny. “Just to give you a rough indication, at some point in September there were about 30 people sleeping rough on the streets of North East Lincolnshire, and of those, roughly about half had been sleeping rough for more than four weeks – and some of them for much longer than that.

“Our outreach team goes out regularly to engage with people and to encourage them to use services, but for some it’s become such a way of life and so distrustful of anybody that it’s very difficult to make changes. We might be able to offer practical help such as a sleeping bag or a hot drink but beyond that it can be hard, and as we go into winter, that gets even harder.

“There is also a constant stream of new people that we have not seen before – about eight or nine a month. And the reasons for that are as varied as the people themselves; there might be common indicators, but no two stories are the same. It can be that they were unable to pay their rent, or their current situation relates to something in their childhood, well they’ve been in the military and have seen things that have affected them… addiction can be an issue but often that is a symptom and not a cause… the list is endless. To just say ‘here’s a new house’ is not enough.”

It’s bleak reading, but the good news is the organisations like Harbour Place are on hand and in our communities to help. The dedication that Robin, Denny, and everyone we met there was humbling.

“You might think we’d get jaded by it all,” said Denny, as we returned to the kitchen after our chat. “When you hear some of the experiences our guests have gone through, you’re not surprised at how things have turned out for them. What you are surprised at is that they’ve survived. That’s the sad part. the positive part is about how they move on – and that’s what our job is all about.”

Back in the kitchen, we meet up again with John and Lisa. John is retired after a 50-year career at sea. He’s been volunteering at Harbour Place for five years. “I just wanted to give something back,” he replied, when asked why he joined up. “It’s a smashing place.”

Lisa, a ‘newbie’ volunteer of just five weeks when we met, explained: “I became poorly and couldn’t work. I had a high-profile job but being here is mentally more rewarding.” Talking of what Harbour Place does for its guests, she added: It’s amazing what a friendly face can do.”

The kitchen’s serving hatch looks out onto a communal lounge area. By a window was an eye-catching display of artwork, the brainchild of volunteer Hayley. When we met, she’d been volunteering for a year and hosting craft sessions for the past six months.

“Being creative is important,” she told us. “That doesn’t – and shouldn’t stop – just because someone is rough sleeping.

“The sessions I look after evens the playing field. You notice that the conversations people are having are different… it gives people an opportunity to talk more freely.”

Support worker Charlie walked by and perked up when he heard we were from St Hugh’s Hospital. He has his dad, Jim, to thank for his involvement with Harbour Place. Charlie was working as a landscaper, and Jim worked at the charity’s night shelter, when a position came up and Jim urged him to apply. He’s now been there three years.

“It’s developed me as a person,” said Charlie. “It’s changed how I see people. You don’t always notice others when you’re walking about, but I do all the time now. Everything pops out at me – I’m much more aware.

“I think everyone gets a buzz from the work we do here. When you know you’ve really helped someone, nothing beats that feeling.”

As our time at Harbour Place drew to an end, Denny walks out with us to say goodbye, and neatly sums up why the charity not only matters, but why it is also essential to our community.

“When some people leave here, they are just walking around the streets. They have frequently lost contact with their families or friends and don’t have many people to speak to. Often, people simply walk past them as though they are invisible. It’s very easy in those circumstances to feel that there’s no point. That’s not life – it’s an existence. There’s nowhere to go,” he said.

“Harbour Place is that somewhere to go. It’s a safe place, a warm place – and possibly the start of a new path.”

  • Harbour Place is grateful for monetary and clothing donations, particularly hoodies and jogging bottoms, and are always appealing for volunteers to donate their time and skills. Find out how you can get involved by visiting the charity’s website at www.harbourplacegrimsby.org.uk