The continued spread of coronavirus throughout the UK is placing huge pressures on us all. Among those most significantly affected are the 17,000 people who access support through Changing Lives each year. We are a national charity helping people through their most challenging of circumstances, including homelessness, life-threatening addictions, domestic abuse, sexual exploitation, long-term unemployment and more.

We are doing everything we can to ensure that people using our services can continue to access the support they need in these difficult times. Our primary concern is to ensure their wellbeing, and that of our staff and volunteers. However, we are deeply concerned that the people we work with are at particular risk of harm due to their existing vulnerabilities.

The effects of coronavirus on the people we support

The potential effects of coronavirus on the people who use our services cannot be overestimated. Many people who are rough sleeping or experiencing homelessness have long-term health conditions that place them at ‘high risk’ within government guidance. Yet they are not able to take many of the precautionary measures that are needed to keep them safe – it is difficult to self-isolate or socially distance without a suitable place to stay. Likewise, many of the people we support through our recovery and addiction services are reliant on the support of their community. We are particularly concerned about people in our therapeutic recovery services as group activity and peer support is often a lifeline.

Changing Lives also supports women in a range of challenging circumstances, including those experiencing domestic abuse, sexual exploitation, involvement in selling sex, or contact with the criminal justice system. We are particularly concerned that domestic abuse incidents will increase as a result of household isolation – home is not a safe place for women and children experiencing domestic abuse, and social distancing may provide a new way for perpetrators to exercise coercive control. Given the additional pressures placed on our emergency services due to the coronavirus outbreak, we fear it will be more difficult than ever for women to get help.

Our approach to providing support

We are deeply saddened that some of our services – such as our community hubs and drop-in centres – have had to close temporarily so that we can ensure people’s immediate safety. These services are essential to many of the people we support and wherever possible, we are seeking to increase our support in other ways – for example, by conducting additional street outreach, handing out a range of items to support basic health and welfare needs, and supporting people on a one-to-one basis as well as by phone where possible.

For the time being, we continue to provide in-reach to women in prisons and support them on release, but we do not know how long this will be able to continue. We are also rapidly developing our online provision but this will not be accessible to everyone we support, particularly those who are digitally excluded and do not have access to the internet.

We are committed to ensuring that our critical services, such as accommodation and support for people who are experiencing homelessness, our refuge and domestic abuse services, remain open for business – and we have extended our offer where we can. For instance, we have taken on additional properties across Newcastle to ensure that we have the capacity to accommodate people who are rough sleeping and therefore particularly vulnerable to the effects of the outbreak. Within our accommodation services, we are preparing to support people by providing food and care packs, and we have purchased mobile phones so that we can continue to stay in contact with people should they need to self-isolate.

The impact on our teams

Our teams are doing an extraordinary job to continue their vital work, supporting people who may otherwise have nowhere to turn. We are striving to keep people safe, support them if they become unwell, and ensure that they can remain connected to others. This, in turn, will reduce pressure on emergency and other crisis services, during a time where their resources have never been more stretched.

However, like other charities, we are challenged by staffing shortages, the ability to maintain services within an increasingly demanding financial context, and an imperative to maintain services while balancing childcare and other caring commitments.  Already, we have started to redeploy our staff in support roles to assist with frontline services, and we are exploring ways that others can safely volunteer. Members of the public can donate to help us meet growing demand and explore our Facebook page for opportunities to get involved as they emerge – we will continue to keep this up to date with ways you can help us across all of our UK sites.

Our ask of government

It is encouraging to see the government recognises the vital work of our staff and of charities like Changing Lives, in their inclusion of our staff as Keyworkers.

However, during these challenging times we are still calling on the government to take the following specific actions:

  • give particular consideration to the people who are rough sleeping or experiencing homelessness, particularly given that many of them are at ‘high risk’ of harm from coronavirus but do not have the tools to self-isolate or socially distance themselves from others
  • consider specifically the impact of official guidance on people experiencing domestic abuse, and provide the necessary tools and resources to ensure that organisations can work with people to ensure they can access safety and support
  • allow for flexibility in the delivery of commissioned services, recognising that voluntary sector organisations are already in an extremely challenging funding climate, particularly where contracts use payments by results.

Since the outbreak has taken hold, we have been overwhelmed by the backing we have received from our commissioners, volunteers and members of the public. We are hugely grateful for their continued support. The challenge ahead is significant and this is a concerning time for us all. Our thoughts are with those who are impacted by COVID-19 and we will continue to act responsibly to ensure we can continue to provide vital support to people who need it most.

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