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“It’s so nice to help in that moment of need” – HARP Staff Laura and Diane tell their story

Laura and Dy
Laura and Dy

As we continue to celebrate our joint 20th anniversary with CHESS Homeless in Chelmsford, we spoke to Laura Holland and Diane Ainslie, who are HARP’s two longest serving members of staff, and have seen many changes and memorable characters over the years.

In their time with the charity, they have worked to support many thousands of people who found themselves homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in Southend-on-Sea.

When did you join HARP?

Laura – I started working for HARP before it was even called HARP, when it was Southend Centre for the Homeless, back in 1996! We were based at Valkyrie Road and it started as a Job Club around ten years before, with one member of staff and a team of volunteers. As the needs of homeless people grew, so did our service.

Dy – I started as a Part Time Female Youth Worker in 2006, back when we had a children’s service, so I’ve been at HARP for 16 years now. When I started, Laura was my manager, and we used to have lots of interesting discussions about referring service users between the Job Club in Valkyrie Road and the Night Shelter in York Road

What sort of services were on offer back then?

Laura – we were supporting street homeless people, sofa surfers and people in short-term insecure lets. We had an Outreach Worker who worked solely with Under 25s, a service called Leapfrog where we supported families living in temporary accommodation. We worked with a community psychiatric nurse, a midwife for homeless people, a health visitor, a chiropodist and a mobile dentist. We also worked alongside a separate organisation who offered emergency housing for homeless people in Southend, where people could stay for a maximum of seven nights whilst the Day Centre sought private rented or supported accommodation. Some amazing work was done back then - we helped so many people.

Dy - The biggest issue was that there were two separate organisations – the Night Shelter and Day Centre were totally separate, which presented a lot of problems with communication and getting things organised.

Can you tell us one memorable story from your time with HARP?

Dy - at Christmas we had a filled the small dining area with tables and crammed as many people in as we could, and we’d always have a sing song. One year, there was a group of Eastern European men, and when they’d finished dinner, they got up and started singing their traditional songs and playing harmonicas. It was amazing! All the staff and volunteers would dress up as Father Christmas and lots of the guys would say we were like their family.

Laura – I’ll always remember in my first week, a young girl came in clutching her birthday card, and she told us that her family had moved to a different county while she was at school. It used to happen a lot - as soon as the child benefit would end for a 16-year-old, the family would ask them to leave. It was just before Christmas and my heart really broke. We managed to get her a place, some money, so she wasn’t street homeless over Christmas, but that one really stuck with me.

What’s different between the old days and now?

Dy - Back when I started we had a seven beds place in Westcliff, and a 14 bed Night Shelter in York Road, so total of 21 beds. The 14 beds in the night shelter were shared rooms too, with only shared facilities - it was a far cry from the en-suite rooms we're able to offer now. We used to run from one site to another to run the next service, with the exact same team! When Bluebird opens in October, we will have close to 300 rooms, so the sheer size is just so much more massive!

Laura – HARP’s approach has definitely changed – we concentrate on breaking the cycle of homelessness now so clients can take control again.

Dy – That’s true! HARP’s way was always “agree to it all, and then try and work out how it would work!”

We were dealing with smaller numbers, and we had clients returning all the time when it didn’t work out for them in independent accommodation! We used to do a lot of finding people somewhere to live, now we do a lot of providing the help needed to help them maintain that home lifestyle when they get it, and so many more are very complex.

It can be really romantic looking back, it was a lovely place to work, it was crazy, but under resourced - we used to interview people 3 in a room, now it’s private and dignified, and we offer a much wider range of activities and accommodation compared to the past.

Can you tell us about one particular service user that you’re fond of?

Laura – The first name that I think of is always Terry– he’s a loveable scoundrel! I’ve known him about 20 years, and helped him with various things over the years. I used to be the benefits advisor, so I’d advise him on his benefits, filling his forms out, getting him ID, referring him to landlords, getting him furniture and clothes! He’s now living independently with support from HARP.

Dy - I remember trying to secure a bank account for a really well known client. It took ages for me to sort it out, but the council were insisting that he had to get an account to get his payments. Eventually he threw up his hands and said “how can I get an account, they’ll never give me one – I’m a convicted bank robber!”

What’s the most satisfying thing about working for HARP?

Dy - When the clients come back with a photo of them and their kids, or you get them that accommodation that has a small space for their kids to visit, some get to go to university, or find a job – some just find that average life that we all have and that’s a real achievement! It’s a long time coming sometimes, we don’t always see the positive result, the positive outcome, and it’s amazing when someone comes back and tells you how their life has changed, its massive for them and for us!

Laura – I still find it rewarding, even now, after all these years, just to say “we have a vacancy we'd like to offer you”. People are always so happy and grateful, -it's huge, and it’s so lovely to see. It might be someone just like you or I who have lost their job, got behind with their rent, or it could be someone who's relationship has broken down and they have nowhere else to go. I guess all I'm saying is homelessness can happen to anyone, especially at the moment, and we are seeing increasing numbers again.


This is part of our series Two Charities, 20 Years, 20 Stories, celebrating the joint 20th anniversaries of Essex homelessness charities - HARP in Southend and CHESS Homeless in Chelmsford. To read more, visit the Two Charities, 20 Years, 20 Stories Hub.


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