How fresh thinking helps to feed Harrogate’s homeless

Volunteers Stephen  Cattanach (left) and  Derek Allan sorting  some of the food given by Fodder to the  Harrogate Homeless Project at Wesley Chapel in Harrogate

Volunteers Stephen Cattanach (left) and Derek Allan sorting some of the food given by Fodder to the Harrogate Homeless Project at Wesley Chapel in Harrogate

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Life is being made brighter for a group of homeless people, thanks to a link between two charities that means they get a hot meal every day. Andrew Vine reports.

THE kitchen windows are starting to steam up because a tuna pasta bake for 30 is coming together on the big cooking range.

It’s an ideal lunch to keep out the cold on a damp, miserable day, and the people being cooked for will appreciate it more than most. That’s because they are homeless and it’s the only hot meal they are likely to get in 24 hours, most of which will be spent on the streets.

The meals served five days a week at the Harrogate Homeless Project’s Springboard centre are made possible by a link forged between two of the town’s charities at opposite ends of the social spectrum.

Food from Fodder, the award-winning farm shop run by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society (YAS), is donated to Springboard every week and is the vital ingredient that enables meals to be served.

Vegetables, fruit, pies, cakes and dairy products which are slightly past their best, but still fit to eat go to the project. The donations have made a huge difference.

“It’s transformed what we can do,” says Linda Fulcher, who runs Springboard with Mark Sutcliffe.

“We’re able to give them a hot, healthy meal which is the only meal they’re going to get.”

Mark agrees. “It’s been brilliant, it’s totally changed the dynamics of what we’re able to do. We get lots of carrots, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, lots of fruit, boxes of bananas. There will often be a car boot full or more, and it’s real top-end stuff.”

The link between Harrogate Homeless Project and Fodder, which returns all its profits to the YAS, the charity that champions farming and the rural economy, came about because the shop had a surplus of food.

YAS deputy chief executive Heather Parry said: “We had spare food, and we didn’t want to waste it. We had things which were good enough to eat but which we couldn’t sell, like scones that were a day old or vegetables, so we decided to have a search round for somebody who could use them, and we came across the homeless project.

“It’s great because all people donate to the homeless are tins of baked beans, and you can get sick of tins. You feel better with fresh food inside you. It’s getting the people they help into eating healthily. We never imagined that it would be a secondary benefit of Fodder, but we’re delighted that’s what happened.”

Springboard, at Wesley Chapel House, in Oxford Street, needs all the help it can get. There can be as many as 50 homeless people arrive in any one day. On a recent cold morning, Linda opened at 10am as usual to find 17 men waiting to get in.

The menu depends on what arrives from Fodder. Because it stocks seasonal produce grown in Yorkshire, the vegetables can be slightly out-of-the-ordinary, like celeriac and fennel. “Monday is always egg and beans on toast, because we’ve got no vegetables because we’re waiting for them to come,” says Linda.

The volunteers who do the cooking have to think on their feet depending on what turns up, though regular staples include shepherd’s pie, sausage and mash with veg, savoury mince, curries, chilli and sausage casserole.

The homeless men who will devour the tuna pasta bake start arriving at 10am on the dot. There are faces that look like they are barely out of school and others that are grizzled and weatherbeaten from too long outside.

It is an aspect of life in Harrogate often overlooked. There are few more affluent places in Yorkshire, but it has a core of people who have hit rock bottom.

Some have drugs or alcohol problems, and there are others with psychiatric difficulties.

Homelessness has claimed them as families or relationships have split up, or jobs have been lost and lives sent into freefall. And some have fallen a very long way.

Linda, 57, who volunteered with Harrogate Homeless Project before taking up a staff post, says: “We’ve had an architect in here, an accountant, a social worker. If they’ve got no family and a relationship does break down, where do they go? The times we’ve had people sitting here crying, and saying, ‘No disrespect, but I never thought I’d find myself in a place like this’.”

This year has seen an increase in the number of young adults, from 18 to about 20, seeking help.

“In the summer, there was a group of four or five of them who thought it was great for the first week, but after that they were all in tears,” says Mark.

The plight of the young homeless is a particular concern to both. “I often think if you’re going to throw your kids out, throw them out before they’re 18 because at least something will be done,” says Linda. “Once they’re 18, they’re homeless just like anyone else and they’re very young to be mixing with some of the people they meet. They’re very vulnerable.”

A hot meal – as well as the chance to shower and wash clothes – means a lot. The cooking today is being done by Pat Webber. She and her husband, Geoff, became involved when he was mayor of Harrogate and the homeless project was one of the charities he supported.

Geoff, who is vice-chairman of the charity’s board of trustees, says: “The point of the day centre is to help people maintain a little dignity, even though they are at the bottom of the heap. A lot of people would cross the road to avoid some of our clients, but at the end of the day, they are still human beings.”

The charity was founded by Harrogate Churches Together in 1991. Besides Springboard, it has a 16-bed hostel in Bower Street. Keeping Harrogate’s homeless fed is a constant challenge. There is a stock of tinned food donated by churches and schools at their harvest festival services, but raising money to buy meat for meals is always on Linda and Mark’s minds.

Surplus clothing, often donated by families of people who have died, is sold to raise funds for food but that only brings in 50p a kilo. There are regular donations from Bettys and Taylors and Sainsburys, and a consignment of sausages 
from manufacturers Heck was a boon.

Even so, it’s an uphill struggle, and the daily meals would not be possible without the link with Fodder. The homeless people who rely on Springboard are about to face their most difficult time of the year.

“We’re open Christmas Day, which is the worst day of the year to be homeless. Christmas just makes it worse for them, because they think about their families,” says Linda.

“January isn’t a good month either, because you get more family breakdowns over Christmas, and you’ve got more homeless.”

There will be a present for everybody – a chocolate orange from a boxful that has been donated and probably a new pair of socks as well.

Lunch is nearly ready, and it smells wonderful. There are plates of bread set out on the tables to have with it, and fruit to follow. For the homeless people about to eat, the room is not just a haven, it’s a lifeline.

One of them is Joe, 35, who suffers from depression. He ended up on the streets after his family rejected him and then the relationship with the mother of his child broke down, leading to him losing his home. “I don’t know what I would have done without this,” he said. “I wouldn’t get a meal.”

And Nigel, 39, hopeful of soon getting a new home after being on the streets agrees, saying: “It’s meant everything to me. It’s been a godsend.”

• Further details of the Harrogate Homeless Project can be found at www.harrogate-homeless-project.org.uk

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