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Tales of Covid – Poplar HARCA

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Tower Hamlets, bearing out east from London Bridge on the north side of the Thames, has always been a home for migrants: first Huguenot and Jewish settlers, setting up homes and workshops for clothes and shoes amongst other trades; then from the 1970s on, a new Bangladeshi influx which settled around the Brick Lane area, with the Brick Lane Mosque sitting on the same site as a synagogue and, previous to that, a Huguenot meeting house.

The London Docklands Development Corporation building of Canary Wharf and other huge structures along the river may have created enterprise activity there, but in the norther parts of the borough — in Bow and Poplar — standards of living have never been high. Poplar HARCA is a housing, regeneration and community association in east London. Its residents voted HARCA into existence over 25 years ago and it’s led by the needs and aspirations of the local community.

Poplar HARCA

Today, HARCA own and manage over 10,000 homes and invest around £4m each year in community regeneration. Since its formation HARCA has also moved into a wider area of social benefits, from helping people into work to providing creative spaces for young people to work in the creative sector.

Much of HARCA’s work on behalf of the community during the pandemic was self-generated, not relying on prompts or requests from the Council or other statutory authorities. With that spirit and emphasis in mind, it’s remarkable to see the impact of the charity’s link-up with the Poplar Women’s Inclusive Team (WIT), which carried out over 11,000 food deliveries and provisions to enable struggling families to get access to hot food. Their work was so impressive that they were awarded the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2021.

Words from Poplar HARCA

HARCA’s Becs Marshall describes how they worked:

“I will never forget how WIT helped the Linc Community Centre and provided a community kitchen at our St Paul’s Way Centre, at the height of the pandemic. Early on, the staff teams who run the centres were thinking ‘What can we do to help our community with the resources and staff we have?’. Like so many people, some of our colleagues were furloughed, isolating or unwell.

“From ringing around local people, and talking to those who were coming in, it was immediately obvious that our community was in a really, really bad way. We knew a food bank was desperately needed but we just didn’t know where to begin. And then, suddenly, Poplar HARCA’s partnership with WIT happened.

“They were looking for somewhere to establish a food provision. We had the space to provide one, and so we came together. None of us knew exactly what to do and every one of us was going through our own stuff at this point. Lots of our community had lost jobs and were scared about getting sick. There was so much uncertainty.

“But WIT rolled their sleeves up with such a strong sense of direction, they made us feel anything was possible. Without WIT, the food bank at the Linc Community Centre Centre and the community kitchen at the St Paul’s Way Centre just wouldn’t have happened. They allowed us to do our jobs and to support our communities, at a time and in a way in which it was needed the most.”

In addition, HARCA set up a new Covid and Isolation Community Support Hub covering Bow and Poplar, which was made up of some core HARCA staff plus many volunteers. The Hub kept up phone links with vulnerable residents and organised shopping, collections of medications, welfare benefits advice, foodbank assistance and befriending.

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

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