Challenges for community support

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Rye Food Bank volunteers gowned and masked as they handle deliveries

As we experience some easing of lockdown to the “new normal” and keep a close eye on any resurgence of virus infections elsewhere, Rye Mutual Aid (RMA) has been taking stock of the situation in Rye and district and – after over 84 days of lockdown – these are just some of the emerging issues.

Talking to Rother Voluntary Action (RVA) which provides a focus for voluntary groups across the district there are some quite alarming facts. In Rother district, excluding around 7,000 people not actively seeking employment because of long term disability or other health issues, there are some 50,000 people “economically active” in the 16 to 64 age bracket. These are either in employment or unemployed but capable of joining the labour force.

Currently, about one third of these are in one of the categories of unemployment – furlough or unemployed and seeking work. Because so much local employment relies on tourism and hospitality, Rye and district is said by Rother district to be one of the areas “hardest hit” by the impact of the pandemic. Many workers are on minimum wage or a “zero hours” contracts and the lockdown has left many without income.

“Mounting family debt”

For those in “furlough”, (Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme or the Self-Employment Support Scheme), there is uncertainty because it will be wound down over the summer months and finished (perhaps by October 31). Reduced pay since April (the scheme only pays 80% of earnings) has left many striving to meet financial commitments, particularly for houses and cars. The self-employed have been less well treated by the available benefit schemes. The result is mounting family debt.

The government has allocated large sums for business and community assistance. However, some of the former are not benefitting because of not meeting the criteria and the latter may not have been reached the most needy because they are not aware of the opportunities. This piece focuses on the latter, but much work will be necessary on the former if Rye and district is to return to levels of employment seen before the pandemic.

For families in need, the government’s change of policy not to cease the meal voucher system when the schools move into the period when they would normally be on summer holidays will be welcome. But this will be only slight relief to those unemployed or on minimum pay.

While it is reassuring to know that there are many organisations working on different aspects of community support, for some individuals, particularly those with little or no computer support, it can be almost impossible to establish who is doing what and for whom.

“Shielded scheme may cease”

Through RMA public communication – on the RMA website, through social media, and letters and posters – we have indicated the organisations that have stepped up to provide emergency help and assistance – NHS Volunteers; ESCC for support for the extremely vulnerable, the Rye Food Bank and community hubs such as RMA now operating across the 21 zones of Rye and district.

But we learn that the “shielded” scheme for the extremely vulnerable may cease in July which will be the source of concern for those on the list. With images of people returning to shopping malls and beaches, and the large crowds at Black Lives Matter rallies, the vulnerable might be excused for being a little confused about the risks.

For them the Health Secretary earlier this week was clear, “we are winning the battle but there is a long way to go”. That message suggests that short term support for the vulnerable will be needed for a while yet.

What of the longer term? We know that staff at East Sussex and Rother councils are working on future community need. The Sussex Resilience Forum, normally engaged in building resilience and emergency preparedness, is said to be developing an economic resilience plan.

This planning overarches advice and assistance on the ground, such as by Hastings Advice and Representation Centre (HARC) and Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) in Hastings. Both provide coverage to Rye and district by offering free and confidential advice about available benefits. There are other organisations such as Marlborough House, providing support to some vulnerable in Rye including those with dementia. Separately, the Hastings job centre is looking to provide outreach to Rye but, as yet, has not firmed up a plan.

“One stop shop needed now”

We have suggested that the facilities at the Tilling Green Centre , or elsewhere, for a “one stop shop” of community advice should be rejuvenated. There should also be outreach to village centres.

As non-constituted organisations, REACT and RMA will stay closely in touch with all those that are statutory or constituted to ensure that our operation continues to mesh with the rest, and with others, we are actively considering the future.

With so much work completed on protocols, asset management and communications, that many other communities envy, we are working to identify the lessons and looking at ways to exploit the goodwill and voluntary spirit that has been generated.

We have just conducted a survey of volunteers to research local views and are considering the responses. We are also providing input to some research by Kent University into “Community-based volunteering in response to Covid-19”.

“Experience must not be lost”

Organisations like RVA are keen to capture all relevant lessons from the lockdown to benefit their future work on wider voluntary activities across Rother. They are looking to see how the experience can assist those charities that are re-launching after lockdown. There are likely to be some that do not survive and may have assets for redistribution.

From the latest Zoom meeting of those guiding the RMA effort it is clear that there are numerous stalwart volunteers helping others to get through and that the efforts are much appreciated by the beneficiaries. Equally there is anticipation of what comes afterwards. The experience of community support through mutual aid must not be lost.

Image Credits: Mags Ivatts .

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