Faces of Cambridge: Lockdown without a home

The lockdown jeopardises social support and material provision for the most vulnerable in our society

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic last month, Cambridge City Council has provided over 60 rough sleepers with accommodation. This scheme has been implemented with great innovation and initiative; hotel rooms, dormant properties and private accommodation have all been utilised. Yet the problem of homelessness is complex and multifaceted – it can’t just be resolved by providing shelter. In an unparalleled situation like the one we’re living in, new issues and complications face homeless people and the organisations that support them.

Cambridge Cyrenians provide accommodation, support and specialised services to over a hundred homeless people in Cambridge. The charity aims to continue providing the rull range of their services whilst adhering to government guidelines, a significant feat. In a statement from the charity’s director, James Martin, he explained: “Working with a community of whom 40 per cent are considered to be extremely vulnerable during a pandemic does not come without its challenges.” Martin also thanked the Cambridge community for its support, and showed appreciation for “the resilience and understanding expressed by our service users at this time”.

On top of assisting the council’s efforts to move Cambridge’s homeless into temporary accommodation, local organisations assume the responsibility of acclimatising people to this sudden change. The Cambridge Cyrenians have been teaching their service users how to use technological aids to continue support sessions with their key workers.

Of course such an approach does not work for all service users, and the charity continues to provide face-to-face support for more vulnerable households, (whilst following government guidance on social distancing and PPE) Examples like this show the crucial importance of interpersonal support for those who are homeless. Material provision can only do so much, but essential services can continue to be provided thanks to the flexibility and commitment of key workers and other staff.

(Photo credit: Cambridge Cyrenians)

Similarly, Wintercomfort (another vital welfare service for Cambridge’s homeless) has encountered great difficulties with the government lockdown. The charity has had to close their seven day operational centre, a major part of the homeless community’s survival strategy. A spokesman for Wintercomfort stated: “Just because our building is closed does not mean we will stop supporting people.”

COVID-19 has caused a complete overhaul of the charity’s operations, as all support work now has to be conducted through email, telephone and text message support, and counselling services are offered remotely. Counselling is an especially vital service, which helps service users (who may be accustomed to living on the streets) deal with unsettling and distressing processes such as being rapidly housed into temporary accommodation. The centre is not only a source of professional guidance but offers many vital practical services such as laundry, documentation and postal services to service users. Functions like these are being rapidly adapted to function in the new normal of lockdown.

COVID-19 has raised awareness about the extent of homelessness in Cambridge. As a result of the housing initiative, a high number of people the council was not previously aware of have presented themselves as homeless. Hopefully these new statistics will highlight the extent and severity of homelessness in our community and compel the council to take initiative. Wintercomfort has commended the work of the council so far in tackling this crisis, countering this ‘unprecedented challenge’ to the best of their ability.

Organisations are anticipating a rise in homelessness following the pandemic, caused by the economic implications of the lockdown. In such circumstances, we as students (the majority of us far from Cambridge) can feel helpless to support those left behind in our community. However, there are ways we can help from near or far: Wintercomfort is releasing a fundraiser on their website next week; you can contribute to Cambridge Cyrenians via this link (they are in need of surgical masks and food parcels, so any donation is greatly appreciated), and if you are currently still in Cambridge, Cyrenians are using their social media account for call outs regarding any items or help they may need.

Cover photo: Archie Hamerton