The view from: Clarion Futures

May 21, 2020

Our blog series, The View From, explores how housing associations have been responding to the Covid-19 crisis. In this blog, Phil Miles, Director of Clarion Futures, discusses how they’ve been responding.

The minute the lockdown was announced, we had to review the way we worked and how we could continue to provide services. We rapidly came to the conclusion that our money guidance and employment support work could continue, unabated, by phone. We also continued other key support services like debt advice and tenancy sustainment.

Anything community-based or involving group interaction however, had to stop. We run over 60 community centres and all of them have had to close. This meant we had to put a lot of our projects for young people, local sports and volunteering activities on ice. Similarly, a lot of our digital inclusion service has been heavily impacted because a lot of it was delivered one-to-one either in sheltered schemes or in community centres.

Within communities we turned our attention to the impact Covid-19 was having on our local partners. Our service provision is split between initiatives we deliver ourselves, and those that we commission through our Third Sector partners. Their survival is critical because without them we can’t continue to deliver these projects.

So we quickly switched our grant funds so that it would be an emergency support fund giving out grants to our charitable partners so they could provide a response to Covid-19. We also reviewed our existing grants and, where appropriate, changed the terms and conditions so that the money could be spent on activities related to Covid-19 responses. If, for example, we’d given money to a group to run a youth sports project, but the group were no longer able to do that, if they could now get those young people to volunteer to deliver food parcels, we would be happy to change the grant terms.

We also fast tracked a number of initiatives, including energy vouchers. We’d already spent a long time looking at food vouchers but found them difficult to administer. Instead, we’ve concentrated on energy vouchers and those have gone very well. We’ve used them to put extra money into the pockets of residents so they have more money to spend on food.

We’ve also been reviewing our hardship fund. Previously this had been used to provide residents with white goods. After lockdown was announced, we had to find a new provider for this scheme, as the existing one couldn’t deliver to residents anymore. Then we found that the new provider would only deliver the new white goods to people’s doors: they would install cookers but wouldn’t do washing machines or fridge freezers. We got around that by switching to smaller appliances including microwaves, so that residents could lift them into their homes and install them on their own. We’re also looking to extend our hardship fund to supply furniture.

We’ve always offered online training courses to help residents improve their employment prospects, but we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of people taking part since restrictions on movement were imposed. Courses that would normally be classroom-based have been adapted and we’re now offering dozens of online courses covering subjects including retail, construction and digital skills.

An ever-changing external environment has meant that we’ve had to adapt at pace to make sure people have the best possible chance of success in our new normal. Being interviewed via video rather than face to face, for example, presents a whole new set of challenges, so we’ve created guidance so that people are confident with the format and able to present themselves in the best possible way.

Some sectors are experiencing growth so we’ve shifted our focus, recruiting for roles such as supermarket delivery and in-store roles, food production and cleaning. We’ve also been working closely with partners in the NHS and the Department for Work and Pensions to help recruit people to staff the 111 call centre and deal with the high volume of new Universal Credit claims.

Since lockdown began, we’ve supported more than 150 people into work, almost two-thirds of whom have taken up roles directly linked to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Like most other social housing organisations, we made sure that we called our 12,000 residents over the age of 70. We’ve also been calling all our 18-25 year-old residents as we know they’re a vulnerable demographic. It’s been a very positive experience and has resulted in a lot of follow up work, whether with our support staff or by linking them into local provision.

We’ve also been working with Liminal Labs to pilot a virtual innovation pop-up labs series. Each pop-up lab brings together residents, local organisations and Clarion staff to co-design solutions for an ageing population through design-thinking activities. We’d run some successful labs before the Covid-19 crisis and have recently run our first virtual pop-up lab. This involved 16 participants coming together on Zoom to share their creative ideas about how we can respond to the social isolation that’s happening at the moment.

Despite our concerns, by the end of the two four-hour sessions, we had developed two ideas. One is around supporting communities to grow their own vegetables. The other looks at how we can support those transitioning from work to retirement with a peer support programme. The virtual pop-up lab demonstrated how we need to be flexible in our approach towards our work at the moment, as well as the latent creativity that we have amongst our residents and our colleagues.

Our work has always been at the heart of the Group but that feels even stronger now.  We know there will be an increase in unemployment, so our employment support, our money guidance advice and our financial inclusion service will all be critical in the future. I sense a real desire to look at long-term place making and really think about how we can ensure we have really strong communities going forwards.

Although it’s a very sad and terrible event, this situation has shone a light on the great work that all of us do. It’s a great opportunity for community investment to play a bigger role in social housing organisations and also help frontline staff to feel that they can provide more support and demonstrate their care in communities.

What’s been striking over the past two months has been how much frontline staff repairs staff, housing officers, were really keen to volunteer and get involved in projects and programmes to help communities. It demonstrated the huge commitment they have to the people we work with.

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