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Tales of Covid – Lewisham Local

Lewisham is the 13th largest London borough, an inner-city borough spreading south of the Thames across the water from Tower Hamlets. As an inner-city borough, it’s not surprising that it has a higher percentage of young people compared to many outer boroughs, and a consequent lower number of older residents. It’s highly diverse, with over 40 per cent of the borough population coming from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Almost half the borough population considers itself to be Christian.

Like many other boroughs, Lewisham saw a significant decline in manufacturing during the 1970s and 1980s which led to a growth in deprivation in pockets of the borough. The last ten years have seen a growth in skilled residents moving in. Sam Hawkesley is the CEO of Lewisham Local, the charity that has existed for over 20 years serving local communities in Lewisham. (The charity is also known by the name of Rushey Time Bank.)

When the Lewisham Council for Voluntary Service (CVS) closed down two years ago after the Council cut its funding, Lewisham Local’s role in supporting the community across a range of sectors became much more important. The borough, in other words, no longer had the voluntary infrastructure that most London boroughs retain of Volunteer Centres (VCs) linked to an overall Council for Voluntary Services (CVS), and therefore the existing charities within the area became the focus for those residents needing support.

Lewisham Response Hub

Just before the March 2020 lockdown, Lewisham Council collaborated with four other organisations — Sam’s charity Lewisham Local, the charity Age UK, the longstanding Lewisham charity Voluntary Services Lewisham and Lewisham Foodbank — to form the Lewisham Response Hub. The Hub was successful in a number of areas over the coming months as lockdown hit, and Sam puts this success down to a strategic commitment by all partners of the Hub to adopt a policy of “asset-based community involvement”.

The urge to combine forces came from both the voluntary and charitable organisations and the Council, so it was a genuine meeting of needs. What this meant in practice was that the Hub members, including the Council, gave each other considerable freedoms to operate in areas where they had expertise. For example, Voluntary Services Lewisham had always been strong in befriending, and therefore once lockdown had begun, they took the lead in this area and in the area of coordinating transport support for isolated residents. In other words, through effective joint leadership and a commitment to sharing data and information across the Hub, the partners were able to make impressive steps in supporting the community during the emergency.

The Hub operated primarily through a central telephone line set up in mid March 2020 which allowed residents to phone in their needs or issues. Those residents who were isolating and could afford to pay were referred by the phone operator to Good Gym Lewisham, who arranged for one of their members to organise that resident’s shopping. Those who could not afford to pay were routed through to the Foodbank suppliers. Those experiencing the mental health effects of isolation were offered befriending counselling.

The Council shared with Hub partners the details provided by central government of borough residents who were considered most vulnerable, and those residents were contacted by Hub telephone operators to enter them into the system.

Lewisham Response Hub: Successes & Failures

Was the Hub system successful? Given this was an unprecedented global emergency, and given the fact that no real borough-wide voluntary infrastructure was in place before
March, the achievements of the Hub were remarkable. But by August, while many of the volunteers working for residents through the Hub were exhausted and burned out, there was no alternative but for those exhausted people to carry on operating as best they could.

As lockdown progressed, more and more issues became pressing. For example, the Hub was quickly made aware of non-English speaking people from the Dominican Republic who were mostly working on minimum wage cleaning contracts before the pandemic. Many of these lost their jobs overnight and needed immediate support, but there weren’t initially the facilities to provide Spanish-language support.

Lewisham’s experience of the pandemic once more demonstrates the power within the community of volunteers from Good Gym members to faith community members acting in a selfless and community-minded manner. At the same time, it has highlighted the fact that the borough did not have a rigorous voluntary infrastructure system supported by effective data and communications in place before the pandemic hit, and therefore the voluntary response may have been more ad hoc than in some boroughs where a more deep-rooted shared voluntary infrastructure had been in place for some time.

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Thank you for reading. Check out the full Tales of Covid report for more stories.

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