How we’re protecting residents during lockdown – and why there must be no return to rough sleeping

John Glenton, Executive Director of Care and Support at Riverside and Chair of NHF’s Homelessness National Group, 22 May 2020

Responding to a global pandemic and gearing up an organisation of our size to cope with a fast-moving and evolving political and legal environment is not easy.

However, respond to it we are doing, with our main focus on ensuring that our residents and colleagues are well supported. We are proud of our people, and local authority partners, who have driven this work.

Riverside provides a variety of retirement living, supported housing and non-accommodation-based homelessness support services to more than 9,000 people in nearly 100 local authority areas.

No two services are exactly the same and we have worked actively with local authority partners across the country to identify the right responses for each one.

Supporting vulnerable residents and volunteering

Supporting physically and mentally vulnerable people with high support needs to cope with a lockdown is no easy task.

However, I can confidently say that the decisions we’ve made, the actions we’ve taken, and above all the care, commitment and creativity demonstrated by Riverside staff – frontline especially – has saved lives.

Swiftly closing communal areas, restricting family/visitors and even reducing physical staff numbers at services were crucial steps for reducing the spread of the virus. However, these measures contribute further to isolation.

To counteract this, we started making calls early in the lockdown to every single resident in order to keep them safe, and just as importantly, help them with their physical and mental wellbeing.

We set up a ‘buddy’ system to make regular repeat phones calls to vulnerable residents, and this has provided much needed social connections for some very isolated people and helped to maintain spirits and a sense of normality during the lockdown.

Because of the size and scale of our operations and the restrictions of the lockdown, we needed the help of more people than we usually do.

Staff usually based in offices volunteered to make the initial calls with service users so that we could create social isolation plans for each resident. These volunteers continue to do an amazing job as isolation buddies.

Riverside has also mobilised a huge ‘volunteer army’ from the hundreds of colleagues in our Evolve and Riverside Direct maintenance teams, who have used their fleet of vehicles to ensure customers and schemes have all the food, PPE, and other equipment they need.

This volunteer army has carried out a wide range of responses – from responding to emergency maintenance calls, to picking up shopping and prescriptions for vulnerable customers and cooking meals. As feedback from one frontline colleague put it: ‘no task is too great or too small’.

There are still challenges of course, one of which is how to approach prescriptions, especially for customers with substance dependencies.

I heard from one service about an individual given two weeks’ worth of methadone opioid substitute from a local drug service. Shortly after, they had an argument with their partner and started talking about using the supply to take an overdose.

The staff were on hand to support them and stay with them until the early hours of the morning and check in with them regularly after that.

The danger of suicide is not unusual in supported accommodation – but dealing with it during a lockdown, and under the restrictions of social distancing, is.

Finding homes for rough sleepers

In our homelessness services, there are many people with physical and mental health issues from the trauma they have experienced and some face addiction issues. The vast majority of people do not have access to the same home entertainment diversions that the majority of the population take for granted.

Most people who have become homeless have experienced a breakdown in trust in a relationship and repairing that broken trust is not easy.

This makes it even more positive that many thousands of people who were sleeping rough are now able to try to cope with these issues while staying in emergency accommodation – mostly hotels left empty by the lockdown.

The next stage of the challenge is to prevent people who have moved into emergency hotel accommodation from ending up back on the streets when the lockdown lifts.

From interviewing people in this emergency accommodation, we know that the impact has been palpable, with one individual telling us: “I didn’t see myself off the streets – now I don’t want to go back, I’ve got myself settled indoors.”

Society has a responsibility to make sure that accommodation and support continues to be available so people can stay indoors. That will not be easy, but Britain has achieved things in the last six weeks that we didn’t think were possible.

How we did that is a model for what we do next: local responses, drawing on skills and resources from a range of different partners, to achieve an objective set by national leadership and supported by sufficient funding.

On the latter point, the press and media interventions made so far by leaders in the NHF, St Mungo’s, Crisis and others to focus our attention on this question have been really important.

For our part, I’ve been involved with further conversations with those partners and others about what needs to happen next and really welcome the taskforce set up under Dame Louise Casey.

With representation from all the right partners on the taskforce – including housing providers and the voluntary sector of course, but also connected government agencies such as the DWP and Probation Service – this can deliver real results. What’s at stake is ensuring this crisis becomes a conduit for ending rough sleeping.

We couldn’t have done all of the above without the support of colleagues from across Riverside. We have seen a real willingness from people to help each other in truly challenging circumstances.

It makes me immensely proud to be part of an organisation and a sector where people have risen to the task as they have. It also makes me aware of the responsibility that I, and others in leadership positions across the housing sector, have to build on this progress, particularly when it comes to ending rough sleeping.

The coming months are likely to bring tougher economic times - the last recession led to a 25% increase in homelessness. We must work together to make sure this does not happen again.

Riverside has published a set of good practice toolkits for some of the processes mentioned in this article.