Longleigh Lockdown Stories: Justlife

Justlife Lock Down Story - Image

Our series of Longleigh Lockdown Stories continues just as we head into this second, national lockdown.

This story is from Simon, Chief Executive at Justlife, who shares the power of values, optimism and where the will to do things differently leads to the way of making new things happen.

As we go into the winter, we often hear lots about the visible side of homelessness – of those who are having to sleep out on our streets. Simon’s story raises awareness of the more hidden side of homelessness, a side that can be just as debilitating – the story of the many, many people who are in temporary accommodation and their life in lockdown.

To read or watch any of the previous Lockdown Stories, please go to the News page on our website: https://longleigh.org/news/.

Our Story – Justlife

What a year. Like everyone else, we are looking forward to saying goodbye to 2020 and hoping that 2021 sets in motion a return to some normality. The pandemic has been a hard slog for many individuals and communities across the world. Charities are used to the hard slog, every day facing the challenges that come with fighting for the cause they champion, on top of the constant need for cash and resources to push the cause forward, or to just keep afloat.

As a charity that focuses on a side of homelessness that most people don’t see or hear of, we understand these challenges all too well. Even without the pressures of a pandemic, life in temporary accommodation can be bleak, lonely and directionless without support, but the plight of residents is often hidden from public view. This is why, in spite of the restrictions, we’ve done everything we can to continue our mission to make people’s stay in temporary accommodation as short, safe and healthy as possible. 

Now, as we move into the winter and all the challenges that come with it, I’m sure we are all ready to get back to fighting our corner without this invisible enemy and the uncertainty, fear and threat to life it brings. But I wonder if we will look back on this time and acknowledge its difficulty, but also reflect on how it changed us as charities for the better?

A snapshot of our story

Justlife started in East Manchester in 2008 when our founder realised that people experiencing homelessness were living in some awful, substandard accommodation, with no rights, tenancy or support. Temporary accommodation can be a step up from sleeping on the streets, but it also leads to deteriorating mental and physical health, increased substance misuse, and devastatingly in some cases, deaths that have gone days or weeks without being discovered.

Since then, we have helped hundreds of people move on to more suitable accommodation, get back into work, build their confidence to make positive choices,  engage with their health issues and much more, not just in Manchester but also in Brighton & Hove, where we started working in 2012.

We’ve gone on to work together with landlords, local authorities, the probation service and others to deliver a range of projects for service users. We also conduct research into the problems surrounding temporary accommodation by listening to people’s lived experience, and using these experiences to shape potential solutions, and recommended ways of working together to achieve them.

Our projects for people experiencing homelessness

A year ago, we started a project funded by The Longleigh Foundation to engage with people in Brighton & Hove by matching them up with others who are or have experienced homelessness to have a chat, and get more involved in activities and with their communities, with a focus on doing something ‘human’, and not just being reduced to a ‘homeless person’.

Moving on from homelessness is a journey that requires so much more than just a roof over your head, and the Social Connection Project plays a part in adding some foot holds and friendly faces for the journey. The COVID-19 spanner that landed on us all was hard for a project in its infant stages, but it forced us to think quickly about how we can still provide the service.

There’s never just one way to do things, so we set up Check in and Chat, a weekly phone call service to people who were in temporary accommodation, which is often already isolating for mental health reasons, but compounded by following the lockdown guidelines. Lockdown in my terrace house with a small garden was hard, but at least I had a house that was more than bricks and mortar. My house is a home, with some outside space, internet, devices to connect to the outside world, Zoom calls with family and friends, and hours of Netflix to keep me entertained. As I delivered food to people living in tiny rooms across temporary accommodation, I realised I hadn’t truly experienced just how ‘hard’ lockdown could be.

I’ve learnt over the past eight months that our values as an organisation are actually real things, not just buzz words or aspirational goals. In the spirit of our value ‘collaboration before competition’, we collaborated with Sussex Nightstop for the Check in and Chat project. Their service had ground to a halt and staff had been furloughed apart from their CEO, Alison, who offered us her time and experience of running befriending services to get it off the ground.
We also innovated with a charity who specialise in setting up mobile internet networks in refugee camps, or out at sea on migrant boats – Jangala – to set up a mobile network in a temporary accommodation unit, and distributed 30 tablet devices and training to use them where needed.

We got tablets and data sims for our Creative Studio artists (a group of people with current or lived experience of homelessness) and ran Zoom painting sessions and workshops, while catching up over our different lockdown experiences. We gathered volunteers and staff with cars to deliver a couple of hundred meals and food parcels a day to people (and we continue to do this today). Our staff divided their time between the office, their front rooms/bedrooms, and visiting the people they supported when it was essential. The pandemic is serious, but the issues and needs hadn’t gone away – we had to find ways to continue supporting people.

Reasons to be proud

As I reflect on the past few months, there is much to be sad about but there’s also a lot to be proud of. I’ve found new reasons to be proud to work for Justlife and enormously proud of the staff team and our board, many of them new in role this year, who stepped up and supported me through the experience. I am proud of colleagues from other organisations, of funders who have quickly adapted their funding to focus on COVID-19 support, or told us not to worry about the usual reporting deadlines, or to feel free to use their grants for whatever is needed. I’m proud of those we support who have often shown resilience in the face of the pandemic, a commitment to social distancing, to doing ’their bit’ and helping people in the rooms next to them when needed.

My favourite story from the Justlife team was of one lady who had been addicted to drugs for many years and decided that lockdown was her opportunity to make a change. We gave her a tablet device, and she attended an online recovery group twice a day, joined in with creative sessions for those in recovery, started writing poems, and stopped using, going onto a methadone script. Over the past 6 months, she reduced it to where she is today, clean from drugs and methadone. Our support worker, Sara, stood with her, but she achieved this on her own. That is something to be proud of.

I will look back at this year and remember that anything is possible, even in the face of adversity. I will remember that we don’t have to do things the way we have always done them. I will remember that our values are the key to guiding us and our work, now and looking forward to the future; Collaboration before Competition, Innovation before Institution and People before Programmes. 


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