I’ve been writing this post for about a week now and working out whether it’s something I actually want to publish because tackling homelessness and anti-social behaviour on the streets of Harrogate is a divisive issue.
I do want to speak out as an owner of a small business in town because ours is a voice that is not really being heard at the moment. My business amongst others is being directly impacted and there will be indirect consequences for many others.
Things are on a bit of a knife edge for many small businesses in the town centre and many of the larger ones too. I interact with quite a lot of indies as part of our work trying to promote independent business, and I know many are feeling pain.
It’s tempting to avoid talking about the situation for fear of being singled out for abuse online, accused of having a lack of compassion or ‘picking on’ a vulnerable group in society. I’ve read a lot of comments online and we’re increasingly being asked about it in the cafe too so here we go…
There have been people sleeping outside the rear of Primark, on and off, for a couple of years now. It’s far from ideal and for the sake of all parties I’d rather it wasn’t the case. It’s only been problematic for us occasionally but others around us have experienced greater problems including shoplifting, criminal damage and very disruptive behaviour.
Recently the number of people sleeping there has increased and in the last couple of weeks tents have appeared, giving a more permanent feel to the settlement. People in similar situations will be drawn together, it’s a natural phenomenon. Taking into account the weather over the last month I’m sure the shelter of the roof has been welcomed. This area has now become an area to gather and for us it’s adding to a feeling of unease as these larger groups congregate to drink. The group tends to face outwards towards our guests and passers by and whether that’s intentional or not the posture and behaviour is intimidating.
15th-16th June 19
Over last weekend we had to call the police on multiple occasions across Saturday and Sunday as a group of people were drunk, potentially using drugs and acting in a very aggressive and disruptive manner. Two of our team were physically threatened when they tried to intervene in one gentleman being abusive to a group of teenage girls who were eating breakfast and other members of the team felt very uncomfortable going outside and serving/clearing our outside tables.
This same group also abused guests sitting on the outside tables and made homophobic remarks about people walking down the street following the conclusion of the ‘Pride’ event.
We totally understand that Primark, the owners of the land currently occupied by the group, will be nervous about taking civil action because of the possible repercussions in terms of bad PR if people are moved on.
Our concern is that if the current behaviour continues unchecked, people will start changing their route to avoid the street. That’s not great for us and it’s also detrimental to all of the businesses on the street. We signed a new ten year lease on our current location last week. The rent agreed is of course linked to how busy the street is and its central position within town. If locals start changing their habits and avoiding Oxford Street it’s surprisingly difficult to reverse that change even if the reason for diverting disappears over the next few weeks/months.
External factors like this that are outside of our control are really problematic, especially for small indie businesses that don’t have huge reserves to carry them through difficult periods.
It’s not about business owners having to settle for only three holidays this year rather than four. It’s about survival. Many owners sign personal guarantees on leases, to suppliers and for loans they have taken out to start a business. This means that if our business fails people will be coming for our house, our car and everything else we own. This is an underlying stress that families live with all the time.
Businesses like Baltzersen’s and many others cannot afford to stand still. We need to be growing, becoming more efficient and improving all the time to keep pace with changes in the market and to compete in a crowd. Growth is how we keep up with increases to minimum wage and it means we are able to award our whole team pay rises to reward them and help keep up with inflation.
I have heard the argument about people having a right to choose how they live and I have some sympathy with the idea.
To this point I don’t feel that our team, guests or me on a personal level have infringed on any of the rights that people have to lead their lives, but I can’t say that is true of some of the people who are living and congregating opposite us.
On a basic level I do think the following is reasonable:
- Our team have the right to come to work and not have to deal with verbal abuse or the feeling of being unsafe in the workplace.
- Our guests should have the right to enjoy their food and drink without being verbally abused or subjected to swearing and generally aggressive and disruptive behaviour.
- As the business owner I should have the right to operate my business without having to deal with the negative effects of anti-social behaviour.
What can we do?
I don’t have any expertise in dealing with these kinds of large social problems that exist within society – they are way bigger than me and beyond the level of local government to completely solve.
In a recent open letter published in the Harrogate Advertiser local organisations (Harrogate Homeless Project, North Yorkshire Horizons, North Yorkshire Police and Harrogate Borough Council) suggested that residents should try to support the relevant local charities rather than giving money direct. They are the people that are working in this area on a daily basis so I am not qualified to disagree with them, and most people commenting online are probably in the same situation.
I do question how the existing support structure addresses people who have clearly decided, consciously or as a result of addiction or illness, not to engage with the available services. There was no suggestion of any solutions that might address people in this group.
If the group are moved on from opposite our premises they will likely find somewhere else to settle down, so the issue isn’t going away.
We have been informed that the council Community Safety team are hosting a multi-agency meeting scheduled for Monday, after which there is a plan to brief businesses, but we have no idea what the scope of the discussion will be.
The outlook for this weekend is for reasonable weather and as such we hope we’ll be able to make full use of our outside space. We’ll manage any issues that arise as best as we can.
For their own safety, we’ve instructed our team not to engage with members of the group opposite, to protect guests by directing them to alternative seating where appropriate and report inappropriate behaviour to the Police via 101.
We’d really like to see you at the cafe this weekend and we appreciate your continued support in a challenging time.