“Looking back on this period we’ll look at what was achieved when there was a common goal and a common enemy."
Simon Community works across Scotland to ensure people have a safe place to live and can access all the support they need. They support adults and young people who are experiencing homelessness or sleeping rough by providing them with emergency access to accommodation, care, support and connections in the community. During the first lockdown the organisation responded rapidly, arranging accommodation for 140 people within 72 hours which allowed people experiencing homelessness to take the basic precaution of self-isolating when they were most at risk of COVID-19.
In the year since, Simon Community has continued to respond to the ever-shifting situation and developed innovative ways of working. A major response to the challenges people using drugs during lockdown was to create a Policy and Practice Lead for harm reduction. Simon Community wants to foster a workforce that is grounded in an evidence-based approach when it comes to keeping people safe from drug related harm. Hugh Hill, Director of Services, points out that the new approach acknowledges all types of harm from those around begging, physical impacts of drug use around injection sites, blood borne viruses and the threat to life from overdose. In addition, Hugh points out that the psychological harms of drug use stemming from stigma and discrimination are also crucial in terms of the organisation’s trauma informed approach.
A focus for the organisation around the harm reduction work is growing an understanding of women’s experiences of accessing help for their addiction. Hugh states that Simon Community’s harm reduction approach is taking a lead in the sector: “This has made an incredible difference in terms of upskilling staff. I would say we are developing one of the most progressive homelessness focused harm reduction policies in the country”.
In terms of operational impacts of COVID-19 on the workings of the organisation, Simon Community was well placed for staff to work remotely with the teams already set up with technology to facilitate this. There was an impact on The Hub service in Glasgow, whereby the building simply could not safely accommodate the numbers of people visiting in terms of social distancing. To replace this crucial support, staff packed backpacks with digital devices, free mobile phones and essential items and offered an outreach service to continue reaching those who needed support. The whole service is now in new purpose built premises on Argyle Street.
For many organisations there has been a major, and essential, shift to providing services digitally. Simon Community has recognised the positive impact of digital check-ins with people in distress and in need of support. However, the pandemic has highlighted for Hugh and the teams that face to face contact is more essential than ever as people face increased levels of isolation. Hugh said: “In the world of organisations we can get super excited about mixed reality platforms and cloud based systems, but for the people we support what’s really important is you standing in front of them and actually caring about them. Let’s not lose that.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the homelessness landscape in Scotland. There are less people sleeping on the streets and more people currently in temporary accommodation. This has shifted the work for Simon Community. The organisation is now more involved with supporting people to sustain and maintain those low levels of rough sleeping, taking significant ongoing active outreach and multi-agency working, as well as supporting people who have already transitioned into new homes, preventing a return to rough sleeping. Given the levels of isolation people are facing alongside poverty and problems accessing benefits, Simon Community are focused on early intervention and will continue with this work.
The financial implications of COVID-19 across the third sector are undeniable. Many organisations saw some increased levels in financial support at the height of the pandemic, but as we emerge from lockdowns they are facing uncertain futures. Simon Community is currently facing a re-tendering process, a situation that puts services in a precarious position despite its crucial and impactful work particularly during the difficulties faced in the last fourteen months. Hugh states: “We’ve spent a year with staff on the frontline working with uncertainty, anxiety and fear and doing an incredible job, as we emerge from these challenges we go straight back into a new uncertainty as competitive tendering kicks in again”.
As we move forward Hugh’s concern is how the financial impacts of the national recovery will impact the third sector in terms of the downward pressure and potential cuts to services. Hugh’s approach is to look to the future with a view to being able to continue to reach and respond to anyone experiencing a risk of homelessness by diversifying funding streams and becoming less dependent on certain sources that are more likely to be at risk post pandemic. However, creating a fully sustainable future is a challenge for Simon Community and third sector organisations across Scotland.
Reflecting on the pandemic to date, Hugh said: “Looking back on this period we’ll look at what was achieved when there was a common goal and a common enemy. Everybody came together to get things done, and we did it. But the return to normality means risking the return of bureaucracy and barriers going up again”. As we move into the future, the voice of Scotland’s diverse third sector must be heard to ensure it can fulfil its potential and continue to enrich our health and social care landscape.