When a colleague from Cyrenians tells you that ‘it’s scary going to work’, it brings it home just how risky the current environment really is for frontline staff.
There are many roles that cannot be done remotely – health and social care, delivery drivers, supermarket staff, support workers to name a few. For those at risk, or with experience of homelessness, we have a duty of care to uphold. Despite putting controls in place and minimising the contact between staff and residents, Charlotte Bunting, our Communities Manager, observed that by just coming to work ‘we put ourselves at risk’.
The lockdown has brought both professional and personal challenges for frontline staff. Our outreach team supports those experiencing homelessness in a number of ways – through street outreach, key work through Housing First, for instance – and there was initially frustration around not being able to support people in a usual face-to-face capacity. Fran Cawkwell, one of our outreach workers, told me that he was feeling dissatisfied – prevented from doing the job that he wants to do, in order to keep himself safe. This is echoed by a number of colleagues in the sector, confronted with maintaining as much business as usual during the most unusual of times.
Viki Fox has made the bold, but understandable, decision to not live with her teenage son during lock-down, so that she could continue to work and still keep him safe. She says she is driven by the ‘need in the community’ and the fact that people just do not have food and you ‘want to do your bit’.
These personal sacrifices reflect the commitment that staff across the organisation have to the those that we support. As well as meeting immediate needs, like food and shelter, we recognise that people are at greater risk of deteriorating mental health and wellbeing, with some people being at higher risk of suicide.
Across Cyrenians, and across the sector, there have been many accounts of positive outcomes during the pandemic and successful new ways of working. Outreach frontline workers employ versatility and flexibility to work within the restraints of lockdown measures but still provide vital support. The team have made use of strong relationships with other organisations to provide a collaborative effort – supporting those who were rough-sleeping, for instance, to access social security payments, at a time when an already labyrinthine system is harder to access and navigate.
Others are able to work at arm’s length, offering vital support by phone, digitally, or by preparing and delivering food or other vital resources at a distance.
Simone Oliver-Smith, a keyworker, spoke to me recently about the benefits of using technology and social media to connect with young people in our city community and hoped this positive new way of working could continue beyond the lockdown. For our older people services, who promote positive health and wellbeing by supporting community connections, digital technology is not often the best tool, so staff and volunteers have been writing and phoning, and linking up people so that they can communicate with and support one another.
People across Cyrenians are working hard to support people on a route out of homelessness, as well as preventing further people experiencing it. Common to all of this diversity is a values-led way of working – person-centred, and relationship-based. There will be vital lessons that we will learn from this exceptional situation that we are living and working through, and some of the innovative ways of working the frontline has developed will be a positive legacy to carry forward. Let’s make sure that, post Covid19, the solutions to homelessness are shaped by those with lived experience, and those frontline workers whose vital work should be valued and applauded year round.
Shelly Coyne is the Policy and Participation Manager in our Outreach Team for All In For Change project.
All In For Change, led by Cyrenians, Homeless Network Scotland and Scottish Community Development Centre (SCDC), puts lived experience at the heart of system change by bringing together frontline workers and people with their own, personal experience of homelessness either currently or in the past.
The 30 people making up the Change Team will be represented on a national strategy group on homelessness HPSG chaired by the minister for local government, housing and planning, Kevin Stewart MSP. It will build a network of those living and working with homelessness to influence policy and strategy at local and national levels – and to help turn that into real change on the ground.