Our Executive Director Laura Seebohm’s, guest blog featured on A Better Way, discusses how the COVID-19 crisis has transformed ways of working, and how this offers a unique opportunity to develop a new system.

I recall very clearly a few weeks ago when we first faced up to the stark realisation of what Covid19 might mean for people we work with. Many will have pre-existing vulnerability to the virus given what we know about the impact of homelessness and enduring poverty on physical health. More than this, there is a real disparity in how people experience social distancing and self-isolation, and this is never more extreme for people who do not have a home or a family.
While there is much discussion in the media about a new community spirit, lower pollution and the re-emergence of wildlife during this period of lock-down, but this is really only reality for a few in the most luxurious positions. Once we can venture out of our closed doors I believe that a light will shine on the gaping inequality that existed before but will be so exacerbated under these conditions.

Many people we support do not have access to phones, data or wifi; they do not have Netflix or even a tv or radio. Social isolation is unimaginable under these circumstances. Connection and belonging is so important to all of us, but never more those for who social relationships may have been troubled by past experiences of rejection and trauma. Sense of community and peer support is a life-line to those in recovery from addiction or people on release from prison.

Much has been done to meet people’s immediate needs and in most areas we have managed to find accommodation for everyone who was previously rough sleeping. Our teams have responded by radically changing the way we work – providing phones, delivering food and medication, delivering virtual group work programmes, and much more. We have found additional accommodation for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and our teams have reached out to the increasing number of women selling sex on street to meet basic health and welfare needs. Our teams have been what can only be described as outstanding in their compassion and pragmatism.

What I see across the sector from grass roots groups to larger organisations like Changing Lives, is the fact that – in all our diversity – we are most in-tune and able to adapt to rapidly emerging needs. Responses to Covid19 have in many instances been led by front-line staff. Like so many who are keeping us safe and producing essential goods and services, these members of our workforce were recently described as ‘low-skilled’ by members of our government.
What we see is that power dynamics are shifting and it is front-line staff who have become the solution for local authorities, police and health partners. Our teams have stepped up, innovated and their creativity has changed systems and structures overnight. Our staff have felt able to take control now they are free from constraints of contractual terms and performance metrics. This does not happen by chance; within Changing Lives we have worked hard for the past few years to create conditions where people feel a sense of their own autonomy and responsibility. So their agility to respond to the emerging circumstances came quite naturally to most of our people.

Hierarchical power seems to be (possibly temporarily) eroding as commissioners are acting as ‘system stewards’ rather than controlling the system. The people right now with the power are those who are making a contribution and those who are relevant. We see this across the public, private and voluntary sector.

We need to be careful when we talk about this phenomenon – and more widely about the compassion which has grown in our neighbourhoods – that we do not romanticise a situation that denies a harsh but invisible reality for many people. But we do have the biggest chance we will probably ever get to build on a newly emergent system which is rapidly accelerating to the foreground. We must resist pressure to return to the safety of a system that was previously normal for our sector but was not working well. Whilst healthcare and meeting people’s immediate basic needs is obviously imperative, we must not take our eye off the long term practices that do and don’t work for people, and imagine what new could look like.

A Better Way Network is a network of leaders who want to improve services and build strong communities. It is an independent group of leaders from the voluntary, public and private sectors who want to improve services and strengthen communities. Networks includes leaders of national, regional and local organisations as well as grassroots activists.

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