“I CAN’T BELIEVE HOW WELL WE HAVE COPED AND HOW WELL THE PEOPLE WE SUPPORT HAVE ADAPTED”
The headline to this article was a comment that was shared by a colleague of Brent Riley, Employment and Engagement Worker at Engage in Leeds. Given the impact that Covid-19 has had on business and individuals generally, the reality is that charities and not for profit organisations have been hit disproportionally hard.
Part of four separate agencies; Gipsil, Connect Housing, Riverside and BARCA, Engage Leeds can typically work with 1,500 people at any one time.
Providing support for anyone in Leeds who is struggling with their housing or associated issues, the service works with single people, couples and families. In addition, Engage Leeds will signpost to other appropriate organisations as needed to give people access to the specialist interventions they require.
Providing a vast array of services to some of the most vulnerable individuals in the city, including those that have addictions and mental health or physical health challenges, the people they support rely on the different specialisms that are offered.
The Dementia Housing Support Team, as an example, offers city wide housing related support to adults experiencing issues with their memory due to head injury, stroke and other neurological conditions.
A service under pressure
Since the pandemic took hold and businesses had to learn to adapt and to work very differently, Engage has seen an increase in the number of referrals it has received. It has adapted its Peer Support and Volunteering service to improve networks and reduce loneliness and isolation and Complex Needs Workers have worked on the frontline with people who find it difficult to engage with services.
The Employment and Engagement services seeks to help people to find education including functional skills and basic IT courses, up to Further Education and higher education support as requires. Furthermore, people are supported with volunteering opportunities to build their skills.
Supporting people with CVs and job applications too, the Employment Service gives individuals who are not quite ready for the world of employment access to pre-employment courses to work on soft skills that employers look for and to generally boost confidence as well.
Brent comments: “It saddens me to inform that Engage Leeds have been much busier. This is not a positive thing given the sector of homelessness that we work in. Our referrals team had no backlog pre-lockdown and now have a six-week average waiting list for new clients.
“We are finding people have accessed our service who probably had no idea last Christmas how their lives would change so dramatically or that our service even existed. Many years ago, someone commented to me that most of us are only ever a couple of wage packets from homelessness. That saying has always stuck with me.”
Standing on the front-line
Like many front-line organisations, Engage has seen more demand for its services but thankfully has not had to furlough any staff as it was given essential worker status at the beginning of lockdown. Brent continues: “Access to our support became one of the key services in the city to help with the welfare of people who would previously have been living on the streets and were re-housed by Leeds City Council in emergency accommodation, so our remit was widened as a result.
“The ban on evictions was probably the support that had the most direct effect upon our services, as well as monies given to local councils to rehouse homeless people into emergency accommodation. That was clearly the right thing to do to protect people and communities. Financial support for foodbanks was also welcome as was money given to domestic abuse charities, both areas that directly affect some of the people we support.
Instead of being office based and carrying out home visits, Engage staff have worked from home and contacted people mainly via phone, social media and emails. Brent explains: “We have done our initial sign up work including risk assessment and support plans over the phone and inputted onto our system.
“We have done home visits when necessary for such as house moves, welfare checks or to deliver emergency food or clothing parcels. We have also sourced funding for tablets and phones for people where there was a need such as for young children in the household to enable schooling or for job searching and application forms to be completed. Our Advice Team have continued to offer support with complex benefit issues such as PIP appeals and mandatory reconsiderations and supporting people with new Universal Credit claims at a time when the job centres have been closed.”
Facing some of the biggest challenges
As a service that is under pressure, Brent explains what he feels have been his biggest challenges during the pandemic. He comments: “Given that I work in the Employment and Engagement service side of Engage Leeds, my biggest challenge professionally has been to source employment for our work ready clients, as it is now such a competitive market.
“We have links with many socially inclusive employers such as Wates Construction, ESG, Bam-Nuttall, Pret a Manger and others who offer interviews to our clients. While we have secured paid employment for people during lockdown with our partners, it has been very difficult as they are often struggling themselves.”
Going the extra mile
It is fair to say that due to the pandemic, it has been a very difficult period for most businesses. Although ways of working have had to change, there have been some positive outcomes for those that have accepted and adapted to a new normal.
Brent comments: “My observations are the way colleagues both within Engage Leeds and external to the charity have gone that extra mile to support those who are most vulnerable, which has been heartening to see. Staff supporting each other has been prevalent and Managers have set up short coffee and quiz events over Zoom as well as socially distanced walks in the park.
“These times have been really challenging, but have taught me that we can cope with what is thrown at us if organisationally and individually we are willing to adapt and look for new ways of working, while at the same time ensuring the people we support and staff are kept safe.”
Looking for new partnerships
As a business that can now work in many different ways, Engage Leeds is hoping to extend its network to collaborate with businesses that can offer clients work based opportunities. Brent explains: “There are clear links between poor housing, health and education. We will continue to advocate for our clients but are also striving to make new partnership with employers that share our values of social inclusion.
“Accommodation and crucially, employment are two essential building blocks to changing lives. Employment brings so much more than finance, it brings pride and raises self-confidence and builds resilience. We are looking for a wider range of employers to collaboratively work alongside Engage Leeds and would encourage any company to make contact if they feel that it is something they would like to explore further.”