'Huge growth in need for emergency interventions': How Covid crisis has hit local charities

Pressure on already stretched voluntary sector

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By Natalie Bloomer

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to grip the country more and more people find themselves needing to turn to charities or other groups for support. But those same organisations are themselves facing increasing challenges to meet the needs of the most vulnerable.

A consortium of Northamptonshire voluntary organisations, community groups and social enterprises, Commsortia, recently conducted a survey of its members to find out how the crisis has impacted them. In responses seen by NN Journal, groups report an increase in anxiety, worry for the future of services and big concerns about the impact of Covid-19 on people’s mental health. One group said:

“There was a sudden influx of people requiring support and services due to a lack of understanding of the pandemic, isolating and shielding - so struggling to do day-to-day chores, shopping, prescriptions etc. Some had financial implications and also housing related queries. Calls for Universal Credit increased, as well as mental health issues being on the rise.” 

Another reported “a huge growth in the need for emergency interventions”, while others warned that a reduction in local services is leading to an increase in demand for those still operating.

Julie Parsons is the founder of the Northamptonshire charity C2C and a fundraiser for the Weston Favell food bank in Northampton. She says both organisations have faced challenges in terms of meeting the needs of their service users but also in securing funding to continue their work.

“C2C has had to remodel its service because so much of what we do is usually based at our women’s centre and our work often includes group work or one-to-one sessions,” she says.

“Because of the pandemic we’ve had to pause all of that and adapt to use online facilities but we know not all service users have the ability to access that. We’re also very conscious of women and children experiencing domestic abuse and finding ways they can communicate with us and find out about what help is available.”

Things have been no easier at the food bank. With many of the usual volunteers being vulnerable themselves and needing to shield, it’s been difficult to ensure the service is fully staffed at a time when need is surging.  

The number of people supported by the food bank has more than doubled from 5,911 in 2019 to 12,003 in 2020, including 5,463 children. The organisation, based at the Emmanuel Church in Weston Favell, has had to change the way it operates to ensure that it is compliant with Covid-19 guidelines and has even been dropping food parcels at the homes of people who are shielding or self-isolating. 

But there was huge concern towards the end of last year when the charity struggled to secure funding to pay for the rent of a shop unit that it uses to distribute food from. 

“We had rent up to the middle of December but we were just weeks away from that before we received new funding,” Julie says. 

“The pressure was too much but thankfully that is now sorted. We are hugely grateful to both the community for their donations and to Northamptonshire Community Foundation for their support.”

The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) which represents 400 food banks across the UK has warned the continuing crisis may force some to close. In a letter to the prime minister IFAN said:

“We are very concerned that the highly contagious new strain of Covid-19 could put food bank staff, volunteers and the people they support at increased risk of infection, and that self-isolating measures may involve the reduction in service or closure of food banks.

“Volunteers and food bank staff have worked tirelessly often under high level restrictions and facing food supply shortages to provide emergency food aid to people going hungry across the UK. Many are exhausted and in some places volunteer numbers are running low.”

IFAN has called on the government to reduce footfall to food banks by “prioritising a cash first approach to escalating hunger”. They say this should include ring-fenced adequate funding to local authorities to provide easily accessible cash grants to families and individuals that are unable to afford food and other essentials and making the £20 uplift to Universal Credit permanent. 

In Northamptonshire, the increased pressure on local groups and charities comes at a time when many were already facing cuts to budgets. 

“The sector has been underfunded for so long, especially in Northants,” Operations and business development manager at Commsortia Dion Hunt, says. “Everyone is forced to compete over the same small pots of money.” 

In 2017, Commsortia was awarded a three year contract worth £7.3m to manage social wellbeing services in Northamptonshire. The fund allowed local groups to provide services like day centres and supported more than 3,000 people across the county. The contract came to an end last March and has not been renewed by the county council. 

“That’s a lot of money to remove from the voluntary sector and we’re not yet seeing it replaced,” Dion says.

“If you look at other areas in the country there are councils that have really invested in the sector. I really don’t see a commitment from the local authority here to invest, if anything I see withdrawal.

“The new unitary authorities and the voluntary sector need to ask how they are going to support those facing the most disadvantage and what systems of finance best supports that. I am not sure if this conversation is being had in an equitable way. It’s going to take time to map those provisions and then commission services - time that some charities and community organisations don’t have given the current challenges facing them.”