The digital revolution is providing a lifeline for many people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus crisis
Of those on the front lines during the coronavirus pandemic, few are having to work harder than the charities helping people experiencing homelessness.
Having already fallen through the cracks, people who are homeless are hardest hit by the outbreak. For those sleeping rough, in crowded shelters or temporary accommodation, it’s impossible to self isolate, while they often have chronic health issues such as respiratory conditions and compromised immune systems which put them at serious risk.
Added to this, those in already vulnerable housing situations have experienced job losses that have pushed them over the edge. Many low-wage hospitality workers are reportedly sleeping rough or at risk of sleeping rough for the first time after losing their jobs as a result of the lockdown.
While a considerable number of those rough sleeping across the country have been rehoused or set up with temporary accommodation in hotels or other properties, an estimated 1,000 remain in the streets with over 25,000 still in hostels, according to Crisis. Many councils are simply overwhelmed by demand.
The emergency is putting unprecedented strain on charities’ services – youth homeless charity Centrepoint is reporting an increase in around 50% in calls to its helpline from young people in a crisis with nowhere else to turn.
These charities are having to go above and beyond to make sure their service users’ needs are still met. What can we learn from the extraordinary response of homeless charities to this crisis and their use of digital resources?
Volunteer collective Under One Sky reports that the diminished access to daily essentials for people sleeping in rough in London is hitting them hard, with most of the usual day centres, shops, pubs and restaurants they rely on for food, toilets and somewhere to wash or charge a mobile phone now closed.
This makes staying connected to many of the services people rely on even more challenging. Organisations such as the Big Issue Foundation (the charitable foundation that supports Big Issue vendors) are recognising the crucial need for connectivity during this time, supporting their vendors by providing them with charged smartphones or a laptop so they can continue to access learning opportunities and support like drug and alcohol therapy remotely.
Crisis has also been remotely supporting an unprecedented 3,000 of its members via phone, text or video call.
The charity says it’s had to respond quickly to the new environment, wherever possible giving them everything they need to access remote support for things like GP and medical appointments and ensuring that other services such as probation and council services are aware of the challenges their members are facing, often acting as a go-between to set up remote appointments via video or phone.
Local charities such as local street food delivery service Growing Links in Cornwall have had to rethink how they coordinate food deliveries to their service users. While pre-COVID-19 their charity’s model revolved around collecting donated food and setting up communal dining for service users, this has had to change to delivering weekly emergency food packages through an outreach network of small volunteer groups.
For charity staff, this has meant harnessing free social media tools in new and significant ways. They receive referrals via text, email or phone, and use Google Docs (a free cloud service) to organise individuals’ details, which is accessed by coordinators all working from home, who then communicate with delivery teams through Facebook Messenger groups.
But it’s not just access to basic services that are important. Many charities are shifting to offer remote services that support mental wellbeing for those facing lockdown alone in temporary accommodation or hostels.
Grant Campbell from Crisis in Edinburgh explains how services in Scotland have responded: "As a team, we’ve had to rethink how we plan our services, and one of the things we’re looking at is our learning offer. How do you spend time building people’s confidence, giving them new skills? We’re looking at how to deliver that remotely."
"We’ve started to see online music classes that some of our tutors have been delivering, encouraging people with photography, even just taking photos from people’s windows or encouraging them to get out and about and explore – looking at how we can provide something slightly different."
The Connection at St Martin in the Fields has launched a website specifically for its clients who are rough sleeping or in temporary accommodation, with an emphasis on free activities, puzzles and ’distraction packs’ that can be viewed online or given out as printed booklets and completed with little or no other equipment.
In times of crisis, you can’t underestimate the power of simple human connection and how digital can be a great facilitator. As well as encouraging video messages of support via social media from the public, a form on The Big Issue’s website now lets people contact their usual magazine vendors remotely via the website, to send a message of support and let them know they’re missed while they can’t sell the magazine on the street during lockdown.