Community can play a role in deprived areas hit by Covid-19 – but we’re heading towards a crisis

Maesgeirchen, a large housing estate on the edge of the city of Bangor in Gwynedd.

Jess Mead-Sylvester, community development worker in Maesgeirchen, Bangor

Maesgeirchen – or MaesG, locally – and Tan-y-Bryn form an estate of almost 4000 people on the outskirts of Bangor. It’s a close-knit, proud and caring community with good access to green spaces and high employment.

Nevertheless, as a community development worker I am familiar with it as being within the 5% most deprived areas in Wales. An area of deprivation by standard measures, but paradoxically a strong community as a result of common hardships.

In early March – with over-70s and many others already isolating – we took the decision not to open the weekly Hive community café. Instead, volunteers immediately shifted their focus to delivering meals to over-70s in isolation. They had already knocked on all the bungalows’ doors and had a list of people to cook for before lockdown began.

That was just the start. By the end of the first week in lockdown we had a support system in place, delivering food boxes and ready-made meals cooked from supermarket surplus to 36 houses every other day. Volunteers were also collecting prescriptions and shopping, and we had established a crash-fund to buy electricity, gas and nappies. All this happened before media, much less leaders, had started talking about the precariousness of those working on zero-hour contracts.

Everyone has a role to play: the post office takes the deliveries; the tattoo shop and church store food and essentials; local councillors distribute food; MaesNi community workers coordinate, take phone-calls and apply for funding; The Hive café cook for over-70s from an office; North Wales Recovery Communities’ (NWRC) Penrhyn House offered their kitchen and resident volunteers; the local authority supplies dried foods and sanitary products; Partneriaeth Maesgeirchen Partnership offered their constitutional structures and bank accounts; Bangor City Council supply PPE; Wild Elements and Bangor University made growing packs for families; Cwmni Theatr Fran Wen are running remote chats and Arts projects for young and old… the list goes on.

There is also a weekly bingo on most streets, there are jigsaw swaps and gifted kindness rocks, poems and cakes. Volunteers have put together 330 activity packs for children.

 

Emergency

Organisations worked in unprecedented partnership – we shared bank accounts, funding, staff time, kitchens, food surplus, contacts, networks, vehicles and volunteers. We threw the rulebook out the window. The local authority offered support, not to ‘take over’. Easy-access emergency funds enabled residents and grass-roots organisations to fill the space vacated by other services with a trust-based provision of basic needs with no referral process. People say what they needed and offer what they can. It works.

Now, we’re collectively feeding 18 adults and 14 children on a weekly basis; 80 individuals receive home-cooked meals three times a week and 84 over-70s have a warm meal delivered once a week. Over 100 people have had crash-funds, 25 volunteers are involved.

This was meant to be a short-term emergency response. But this service can’t stop. We’ve entered the economic crisis and more people are finding themselves out of work or struggling to make ends meet. This isn’t about feeding households during the 5-week universal credit waiting time anymore; this is about structural inequalities in health and wealth that should never have existed.

We’ve just launched a survey to help us plan for the medium-term:

  • 55% of respondents’ household income has gone down, with monthly income dropping by almost a third on average.
  • 10% of respondents have quit their jobs to protect someone in their household who is shielding
  • 31% are struggling to make ends meet on furloughed wages (a typical story is minimum-wage, less than full-time hours, yet still paying full council tax, social housing rent etc.)
  • 26% are now struggling to pay debts
  • 17% have lost their job
  • 10% are uncertain about whether they will have their job in 1-6 months’ time
  • 10% have self-isolated with no pay on a 0-hours contract

Not only has income gone down, but outgoings are going up. Nearly half of all survey respondents have felt the pinch of increasing bills and food prices. This affects everyone – even those whose situations purportedly ‘hadn’t changed’, including those already receiving universal credit. While commendable, the £20/week top-up doesn’t cover basic needs.

Urgent

So while we celebrate the remarkable resilience of a community coming together in a crisis and creating a thorough safety net for all demographics that reaches those who need it most, we are also disappointed by the gaps in the social security system and employment policy that allowed ‘deprived communities’ like this one, despite a high level of employment, to be vulnerable to economic shock.

Here is a community with resilience in spades when it comes to caring for one another, but economic resilience cannot come from within – it must come from a fit-for-purpose socio-economic infrastructure.

As we look to building a fairer society and adjust to living with Covid-19, we must think about what economic resilience should look like for communities like MaesG. We should question whether zero-hours contracts have a place in that society. We need living wages. We should be talking about structural solutions like universal basic income and minimum income guarantee. We need to revisit eligibility thresholds for council tax and ‘top-up’ rents on social housing. Transport. Fuel. None of this is new, but Covid-19 has made all of it urgent.

What role can our community play in this? A small one – one that cushions people from going too hungry and having energy supplies cut off while we wait for a fairer society. For now, emergency funding is accessible. Our community was also fortunate to have existing human structures already embedded – a strong community spirit, committed volunteers, two proactive local councillors, two community workers, local groups and NWRC’s Penrhyn House’ immediate response, helping everyone regardless of circumstance.

But the boundaries commission is seeking to reduce the number of councillors to one and our core community group is not long-enough or firmly-enough constituted to apply for longer-term grants, so we too will operate on a hand-to-mouth basis.

Now, we’re heading towards a wellbeing crisis in which residents identify mental health, keeping children occupied, loneliness and isolation, family relationships, worries about the future, eating well and being dependent on others as concerns on a par with money worries.

Yet our current emergency funds are restricted, have looming use-by dates and emergency funders are still focussing on basic needs provision and too often do not allow for the staffing and infrastructure we now urgently need to build for health, welfare and social cohesion.

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