This week we have entered a second national lockdown – something that, less than a year ago, none of us could have dreamt we’d be dealing with. It has been a difficult year for us all, with fears about our own health and the health of others, with concerns about work and jobs, and with the impact of not being able to spend time with our loved ones. The trauma of this year is both acute and ongoing and the toll on our collective mental health should not be underestimated.
As a charity delivering vital frontline services, it has also been a difficult year trying to deliver our services in a Covid-secure way while facing unprecedented demand. Our teams have had to work flexibly and creatively to meet people’s needs amid a changing environment as the political response to the virus has developed. Throughout the pandemic it has been charities and frontline organisations who have taken the lead in keeping our communities safe and supported, with public health guidance often coming too late or too unclear to be helpful.
For example, early in the pandemic we were disappointed at the lack of guidance for providers of supported accommodation services. The brief guidance that was initially published was taken off the government website on the 25th March and not re-published until the summer. In the meantime, providers had no choice but to lead from the front and manage their own risk.
As difficult as it has been for us to navigate this changing environment, it has been even more difficult for the people we support. Even before Covid-19, they were facing some of the toughest challenges imaginable, including homelessness, long-term unemployment, addiction, domestic abuse and exploitation. These have been exacerbated over the last 8 months as people face isolation, difficulties in accessing support and increased poverty. As we prepare for the next month of national lockdown, we must remember those who are most affected by these measures.
Those most at risk
We know that people who are experiencing homelessness and rough sleeping are particularly vulnerable to the virus and are often not able to self-isolate safely. We know that people who have already experienced long-term unemployment now feel further away from the job market than ever before. We know that domestic abuse, sexual violence and exploitation have increased dramatically during the last few months – in some areas we’ve seen a 179% increase in sexual violence reported by women we support. We also know from years past that any post-Covid recession will disproportionally affect the people we support. We are expecting to see an increase in unemployment and poverty and – much like the pandemic itself – this will hit the north of England the hardest.
The pandemic has also meant that people’s mental health – and in particular, young people’s mental health – is suffering through lack of connection and difficulty in accessing vital support. In some of our support services we have seen rates of self-harm among young people increase by a third* this year. Access to specialist support – whether this is through statutory mental health services, therapeutic support or trauma-informed care – is quite literally a lifeline for some of the people we support. Covid-19 has made it even more difficult for people to get the help they urgently need.
As we deal with the impact of these latest restrictions, we have an opportunity to do things differently. There are lessons to be learned from the first national lockdown, and we urge Government and those making decisions, to listen.
Despite the funding and the political will shown in March, the Government’s ‘Everyone In’ policy to house people who were experiencing homelessness has not eradicated rough sleeping. The use of hotels in many areas provided some temporary relief, but people have since returned to the streets. The Government’s ‘Protect Programme’ announced this week, providing an additional £15 million in funding to support people who are rough sleeping, is vital but risks falling into the same trap. Instead of simply repeating steps taken earlier this year, we must also be looking further ahead to ensure everyone has access to safe, sustainable accommodation for the long-term.
Key changes are needed in how accommodation is provided, and we’ve seen real success where these have been introduced. In Newcastle for example, the Covid-19 response saw social landlords easing the criteria for housing, meaning traditional barriers such as rent arrears no longer meant someone was ineligible for accommodation. Emergency panels were set up to expedite the process of moving someone into their own home and we also made changes within Changing Lives, such as introducing a single point of contact for anyone we’re supporting with housing. As a result, the timeframe for people staying in emergency accommodation before moving into longer-term accommodation decreased by 66%. We’ve also seen the number of people moving out of emergency accommodation into follow on accommodation increase from 51% to 70% when compared with the same period a year ago – despite the additional challenges of lockdown.
The right support at the right time
We know that providing the right support at the right time isn’t always easy, but we also know that it is essential if people are going to make long-term changes in their lives. It’s also not rocket science – if decision makers want to know how best to support people through the next few months, they need to ask those that are ‘seldom heard’ and they need to listen to the answers.
As an organisation, we will continue to listen to the people who use our services and continue to provide the support they need to get through the second national lockdown safely. Our dedicated staff members will continue to provide our front line services. They will continue to provide food parcels and welfare packs. And they’ll continue to provide comfort and connection when it’s needed most.
*Based on figures for March – September 2020, compared to the same period in 2019