When lockdown was announced, closing the Community Centres to the public was relatively easy. However, the re-opening of the Centres is posing all kinds of challenges, which has meant that for the past five weeks the Network of community centres have exchanged information and shared approaches so that re-opening to the public has been well thought through.
Throughout lockdown staff teams across the Community Centres have had their jobs re-purposed so that new approaches to essential service provision could continue. This has meant that new services have been created, for example, telephone befriending services to help overcome the impact of self-isolation and being isolated. There has also been gallant attempts to put a wide range of physical exercise and arts and crafts workshops on line – testing us all in terms of our IT and digital know-how.
Tsigereda reflects on the immediate and rapid response to the impact of lockdown…
It’s been amazing to witness the swift and creative response that the Community Centres put in place. Even before lockdown was announced, many had put measures and systems in place to make sure that all those using the Centres were safe. Throughout lockdown the majority of Centres have remained open as they re-purposed their buildings as emergency food and hygiene product distribution centres. Panic buying shocked many households and families into a situation where they could not source the basic essentials that they needed. Many households became even more vulnerable to multi-layered insecurity (financial, food, fuel) as income disappeared almost over-night, whilst costs soured. Even those on a living wage salary quickly saw household bills rise due to the entire family being home all day for weeks and weeks on end.
Even as early as the 19th March several of the Community Centres realised that their support would be needed by local residents especially as there was an increasing number and prevalence of job redundancies, job losses, food poverty and loneliness, which were all anticipated to increase during lockdown.
It has been amazing to see how the Centre CEOs/Heads of Centre have shown leadership, resilience and operated proactively as a collective – supporting one another, sharing information, exchanging resources, and the like.
A number of the Centres have become very creative in how they have remained connected to their user groups, ensuring that activities could continue, and so that friends and neighbours were able to stay connected. Some great examples include the In-Touch telephone support that has been created by Holloway Neighbourhood Group (HNG). HNG have also put their Egyption Dance, Yoga, Creative Writing, Explorative Art and T’ai Chi on Zoom. Caxton House have delivered arts and craft packs to their elders group and have crated videos for people to follow. You can find out more about this here.
Since the start of the lockdown, eight of the Centres have remained opened as community food hubs and have been working tirelessly to ensure that they are responding to the needs of the local community. Some of their staff teams have been working every day to ensure that food is collected and distributed, have reached out to and collected food donations from local shops themselves, and have worked ‘after hours’ to provide further support.
The Centres were well aware that there was food poverty in Islington. They were also aware that a lot of the residents were vulnerable and would be self-isolating, and therefore would need support with getting food and essential home items. What they had not realised was the sheer extent of food poverty in the borough, and how much the demand for these resources would outweigh supply. This was becoming a challenge, as they began experiencing shortages of food and home supplies to distribute to those in need of them. Initially, there was a lack of volunteers willing and readily available to help with food collection and distribution, however, with the rise of the local Mutual Aid Groups essential collaborations soon emerged.
Operating as emergency food hubs has significantly developed our collective understanding of the needs of Islington’s most vulnerable residents. It has shown us that mental health issues in the community are far more prevalent than many expect and affect a high number of Islington residents. This is especially the case now as a result of increased isolation and anxiety experienced by many people due to the lockdown.
In response to this, again, Octopus as a Network has acted quickly in organising essential welfare checks, whereby residents are phoned and checked in on as part of their befriending service and access to low-cost counselling.
The partnership of the community centres as a network has contributed to the success of the swift response to the need of our community in all areas during this challenging time. Colin Adams, Chair of the network stated “Working as an established Network has been fundamental to our success in creating an effective emergency food response infrastructure, which has been underpinned by our collaborative working relationship with Islington Council. We have proven that we can rapidly respond, shown flexibility and increase our capacity to deliver so that communities are cared for.”
Octopus food hubs have been instrumental in serving the role of being the main food distribution in Islington. The non-stop hard work, creativity and can-do attitudes of the staff and volunteers are what have allowed this operation to go on successfully. We have seen the inspirational work of our team and we are proud of the work of all involved.
Tsigereda Tekletsadik, Network Development Officer