Oration by Patrick Harris

Written and delivered by Nigel Siesage, 26 January 2018

Patrick Harris is an outreach worker for The Bridge, a small local charity for the homeless. That modest introduction may prompt the question, how does he come to be joining the ranks of the Nobel prize-winners, heads of government, renowned authors, peacemakers, sporting heroes and captains of industry who have received honorary degrees from this University?

The answer, put simply, is that Patrick is quite exceptional; every bit as exceptional as those other people, and more so than many, though he is naturally modest, and may not be grateful for the comparison. His tireless work with the homeless, the outcast and the desperate of our society fully justifies the use of the term “awe-inspiring”.

Patrick Harris was born in Leicester, where he lived in the Highfields and Saffron Lane areas, going to school at the former Linwood Boys School. He married his childhood sweetheart, had five sons, and worked as a painter and decorator. This unexceptional life came to an end when his wife left him, taking the children with her. The break up was more than Patrick could cope with, and in his late 20s he became homeless, sofa surfing with friends and acquaintances when he could manage it, but all too often sleeping on the street. He says his preferred sleeping place was a shelter in Leicester’s Abbey Park, as it was a relatively safe place if you climbed in after the gates were closed.

After many months of this, there must surely have been a serious risk that Patrick would continue on a downward path of increasing hardship and isolation. Unlike many in his position, he never succumbed to alcohol or drugs. Eventually he found accommodation at a hostel in the Highfields area, but was appalled to find the place littered with needles and the paraphernalia of drug use. His objections resulted in his being moved to another hostel – and this was a turning point. A lady working there helped him to regain access to his children – and she showed him how, as he puts it, “to give his life to Christ”.

Patrick’s faith now underpins all that he does, and sustains him when his work brings him into contact, as it often does, with the most distressing circumstances. It is not an ostentatious faith, and his help is given to people of all faiths and none. His guiding principle is surely this famous passage from St Mark’s gospel:

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me. … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me”.

Patrick started working at The Bridge in 2009, initially as a volunteer, but latterly as an employee. His normal working day begins long before the rest of us are awake, at 4 a.m., when he sets out on his bicycle and on foot round the streets of Leicester, seeking out the rough sleepers, to whom he is a trusted friend. He will provide any assistance he can, and will point people towards The Bridge’s breakfast service, which he set up two years ago, specifically for rough sleepers. This is available every weekday from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. and normally has 15-20 guests a day. There is also provision for them to shower, to wash their clothes, and to get advice on healthcare, benefits and other forms of support.

Patrick also leads twice weekly hot food and companionship sessions on Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons for others in need. These have on average 85 and 105 guests at each session. When there are enough volunteers, Patrick organises them to take food out to the rough sleepers.

This is by no means all. He finds permanent accommodation for people with none - twenty four of them in Leicester last year. He identifies individuals who can benefit from The Bridge’s mentoring programme, which has helped many to lead more productive lives and reintegrated them in society. He recruits and inspires new volunteers to work with the homeless. This has included encouraging students of Medicine and Law from the University to become involved in The Bridge, preparing them to work in their future professions with these often misunderstood and stigmatised members of our community. And not least, Patrick provides companionship for the people who come to The Bridge, or whom he meets on the streets and in squats. Many of these people are very lonely and Patrick always finds time to talk to them.

Patrick feels very strongly that more could be done to reduce homelessness if there was a more thorough analysis of its causes, together with better co-ordination between the different organisations, official and voluntary, who work in this field. In many ways his own energy now provides the glue, as he shuttles between different agencies, finding solutions designed to meet the specific needs of individuals.

The work is often tragic. Patrick has attended the funerals of 5 of the people he calls “my lads” in the last four weeks. And these are often young men, like the 28-year old friend whom Patrick stopped to speak to one evening on the street, and found to be desperately ill. By the time the ambulance arrived, the young man had died.

Positive stories offer compensation, like that of a man who is now employed as a refuse collector in another city. After work he buys food and distributes it to the rough sleepers on his way home. There are many other examples.

Patrick’s own working day normally ends at about 7 pm – 15 hours after it began. He is frank enough to say that he then needs an hour or so of peace in which to absorb the experiences of the day.

The people Patrick helps have been described in different times and places, with varying degrees of disapproval, as tramps, down-and–outs, derelicts, dossers, beggars, bums, itinerants, vagabonds, vagrants - and in our times, rough sleepers and homeless. To Patrick, they are all people, people who need and will respond to love, empathy and compassion. Patrick’s is not just a job, it is a vocation. He reminds us what can be achieved through dedication, faith, hard work, selflessness and love.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present Patrick Harris, that you may confer upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

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