Major Ian Harris couldn’t have been better qualified to head the Salvation Army in Blackpool when he arrived here in the summer of 2009.
For seven years he worked as London-based director of the Salvation Army’s social work in the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the British Forces.
“We came and found a town with inner city style problems.”
Ian and wife Jean, third generation Salvationist, are now moving to Exeter, to become divisional leaders for Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. The closest comparable Anglican role would be bishop. “We’ll look after 48 churches in all so it won’t be dull,” says Ian. “But it’s going to be sad leaving our own Citadel in Blackpool. We didn’t want to go but we go where we are sent. Twenty four years on since ordination life is still an adventure.”
As with Blackpool, the scenic counties are noted for tourism but have underlying social blight on a massive scale.
Ian and Jean were ordained ministers and majors at the same time. It was Ian’s love for Jean which led the former Methodist minister’s son to the Salvation Army. “I’ve been fighting the good fight ever since.”
His father left the Methodist ministry to become a social worker. “I am continuing where he left off. We’ve tried to move the Salvation Army away from being ‘just’ being homeless hostels to supporting people to become independent and sustain that independence.
“We’ve put in the foundations to do the same here in Blackpool. Hopefully others will build upon that. We found that people were with us a long time. What was needed was intervention earlier. The biggest problem is where do people go when they have been in a hostel? London and the big cities are awful but in most places, Blackpool included, you can find accommodation with support and a promise of ongoing help.”
The tougher love policy is paying off in Blackpool. “The scale of the social deprivation here surprised us,” Ian adds. “People come here because they have happy childhood memories. It’s heartrending when you see what’s happened since. We found there were three Blackpool’s: daytime culture, night time culture, 24 hour culture, and they are wary of each other. We had to bridge that gap. But we also found real pride in Blackpool. And real commitment on the part of the church, volunteers, allied services, and Blackpool Council.
“If I could change anything about society I’d try to make more people care. People do care here. But often they’re afraid to act upon it or reach out.
“The secret is to get them to care enough to commit to make a difference. They don’t have to join us – but support us.”
Three years – and arguably only one proper summer – since arriving Ian and Jean are leaving. They have suffered knockbacks. Thefts of metal from the Citadel roof, cuts in funding, reviews of services. But they know the work of the Salvation Army is far from over. “In some respects it’s only just begun.”
The existing team is taking on the work until Ian and Jean’s successors arrive in summer. There’s a Salvation Army congregation in South Shore too.
The Citadel-based Bridge project for homeless over 25s is the most public face of the Salvation Army in Blackpool – bar the band playing hymns at Christmas, or the army’s national work to trace missing family members. Effectively a day centre and drop in for homeless people Ian hopes the Bridge will become better able to bridge the divide, moving people on faster, if able to cope, rather than leave truly vulnerable people waiting in line or taking chances elsewhere.
Ian adds: “We will still be open to all but those who can help themselves will get support to do just that and move onto to the next chapter of their lives. Our time and attention must go to those who need it most. Some days there are 120 people out there waiting to come in. We can take 40 at a time.
“So by all means come in, warm up, eat, chat, let us signpost you to other support – but then make way so we can help others who may need more.
“The simple fact is we haven’t the resources and need to be more strategic in our approach.”
The Bridge project is now better placed to ride out the winter – and the recession – since featuring in The Gazette’s special investigation into homelessness last month.
“There was an amazing response, our food and clothing cupboards are bulging, we have the volunteers we need for Christmas Day. It had an huge effect. People became more aware of us, more aware of people on the streets - and the same goes for every service featured. But now we need to build on that awareness and goodwill.
“The battle goes on. The Salvation Army is in it to win it.”