People We Support
Attendee of our substance misuse service
This is the last in our service user-focused Features from the Frontline, taking a snapshot into the experience of a user of our Recovery Near You substance misuse service for those dealing with addiction to alcohol, drugs and gambling.
For people who feel their life is dictated by addiction, recovery services are way to achieve stability. Sudden changes in the world around you and a fear of losing the support you rely on can understandably lead to unease.
This was the case for one of our service users, the drastic change in circumstances brought about by the global pandemic was initially unsettling. He was physically attending the Recovery Near You service weekly, relying on one-to-one meetings as well as group sessions, but like many other frontline services, this had to stop its face-to-face service to ensure service users and staff were safe from coronavirus. As someone that has accessed this weekly support for two and a half years, the change was significant: “Lockdown initially for me was difficult because the centre had to close overnight and I thought we’d lost the support we were used to”.
It wasn’t long, however, before the service adapted: “very quickly the support meetings were transferred to Zoom meetings, and it seems that everyone who attends was very comfortable taking part”. This made things feel a bit brighter for him at the beginning of a long stretch of restrictions that lockdown brought about, having the knowledge that the support system he relies on was accessible. Staff at the service have been doing check-ins twice a week, asking clients how they are and any issues they’ve experienced, as well as there being more structured meetings which follow a plan of staying addiction free.
As was the case for many of us, getting accustomed to the heavy screen time and the removed nature of remote communication proved challenging. “Face-to-face support is worth ten times more than a phone call, but it’s the best we can do at the moment,” this service user said. He explained his worries about the remote support triggering his alcoholism and that any warning signs would be hidden from plain sight: “My biggest fear was how easy it was to bow to my addiction because no one would know, so it was quite a struggle to begin with”.
But thanks to the Recovery Near You support workers who have ensured they’ve provided consistent support to a high level, this service user has not fallen back to drinking. This pandemic, despite challenges, has promoted stillness and reflection, and ultimately it seems that this service user has stayed positive and made the best of a bad situation: “Although I do miss the face-to-face interactions, you can still get the same feeling of inclusion when using the online meetings. I have been amazed at how quickly people have become relaxed in remote meetings”.
When asked about his vision for both the service and society in a post-pandemic landscape, he feels “working practices are going to change for good, in particular the use of remote zoom meetings”, and he is aware that the support he receives will be remote for a significant chunk of time. As someone who also regularly attends our Community Voice Council meetings in our London head office, where service users can voice experiences of services, he admits he will have to get used to not attending in person, quarterly trips he enjoyed.
After weeks of speaking to different people using our services it is clear that alongside introspection and learning more about ourselves, we have also all being forced to look outwards, at how is safest to interact with others and find new ways to access support. For many, adapting will have proved difficult, especially for those with mental health problems or addiction. For this person, however, he managed to adapt well to this novel world of online mentoring and, by extension, ensure he kept on track with his recovery.
Lockdown education – our learners
A learner in one of our further education and skills centres spoke to us about her experience of learning in lockdown. In March, all our centres had to close their doors and put in place remote methods of teaching and learning, posing some new challenges and much to be trialled and explored. Despite this, engagement from learners has been excellent.
This particular learner joined the Centre before the pandemic, and barely got a chance to settle in before lockdown hit.
On a personal level, she found the restrictions on seeing family the most difficult: “I’m normally a social butterfly, I like to be outside and roam around, but then that stopped. It’s been hard not being able to see friends and family – I live with my sister, I don’t live with my mum, so I can’t see her.”
Despite the challenges brought about by these limitations to her day-to-day life, they have enabled her to focus on her learning. “I’ve had nowhere else to go, I have got stuck into my work. I’ve kept my head down, concentrated on doing my course so I can catch up with the other girls that had started before me.” This sentiment echoes that of many of our learners who have worked extremely hard and remained active and involved, to the delight of tutors.
This learner got into the swing of using niche yet effective methods of working; she’s made use of Word on her phone to complete assignments and email to tutors, as well as physically copying notes out in a notepad for backup in case the device breaks, but also to better absorb information.
She has also been taking part in the extra-curricular activities that the centres have been setting, including quizzes, photo competitions and fitness challenges. Moreover, she took on the initiative of writing the Centre’s newsletter, involving write-ups of national news and events and centre-based updates. She was nominated as part of our learner recognition initiative, receiving a certificate for her hard work.
Beyond achieving highly on an educational level, she has also found stability and comfort outside of learning: “When we first got locked-down, I thought it was going to be really hard because I suffer with my mental health really bad, but I got used to it and feeling much more calm and haven’t had panic attacks. I think being scared of what people think of me stresses me out, but I haven’t been focusing on that because of being inside and also having the routine set by our teachers”.
This period has been a learning curve for all. Teachers have rightly felt it important to keep learners in the conversations around what should be carried on in the new “normal”. This learner said that online live lessons are helpful and could be continued for those who might need engagement outside of the classroom. She also said, “they should keep the regular communication with us, between teachers and learners, it’s really precious both in and out of a learning environment”. She emphasised that this is not just about academic communication but wellbeing checks: “these happen every week at the moment which is great; if that person hasn’t got someone to talk to about how they’re feeling, I reckon it would brighten up their day, just speaking to that one person on the phone”.
The Centre usually gives learners the opportunity to take mock interviews for jobs they are interested in with tutors acting as interviewers; these have moved online because of lockdown, which have worked really well. Many interviews these days are done remotely, so it has been valuable experience. This, she agreed, could continue even when the centres are open again.
As we grow closer to lockdown’s end and the world of education nears the re-opening of our centres, schools and colleges, there’s much to reflect on about these last few months; of new remote ways of working, of checking in that little bit more, of trialling new formats and technologies that provide valuable experience within the ever-growing technological world. One thing this period has absolutely evidenced is the personal strengths, maturity and drive of a cohort of young people who did not get on with mainstream education at school. With Nacro’s Education support they have remained engaged and enthusiastic in circumstances that at times may have worked against them.
Living in our housing services
Over the previous weeks, we have been focusing our features on members of our staff who work in frontline services across the country, in resettlement, housing, health and education. They have painted a picture of how our services are adapting to COVID-19, and how the people hard at work at the forefront are feeling. Now, we hear from the people who use these services, the people who are at the centre of all that we do.
For all of us, lockdown has increased the amount of time spent in our homes, and so for those we house in our accommodation services, this has meant that any changes within the service have felt magnified, whether this be the daily routines, new regulations, or different ways of receiving support.
One of our service users (T) who lives in one of our properties in Wales has shared his experience of lockdown. From then (“very poor mental health”) until now (“feeling much better”), we hear about his experience in the service and how support from his Nacro worker gave him some stability during this time.
“At first I was fine with the lockdown, I liked not having pressure from the JobCentre, but after a while it upset me as I am on my own. I felt lonely”.
From the very beginning, his housing service enacted full social distancing measures and his Nacro worker got in touch with him by phone instead of visiting in person. Like many service providers, adapting to the new rules has had its difficulties; T said “I think the service has been challenged by having to adapt to providing the same standard of good care whilst having been handcuffed by the lockdown, alongside dealing with greater instances of mental health issues”.
On a personal level, the challenge for T was adjusting to the transformed nature of interactions, both internally in the service and externally with loved ones: “I’m a very social person and my mental health relies heavily on me being able to leave the house and talk to friends who are my support network”.
When things started to go downhill for T, his support worker was on-hand to help: “she asked how regularly I would like her to call me, so I settled on three times a week for the best balance”.
When he started to struggle even more, “she came round and stood in the rain in my garden to talk to me and made me feel much calmer”. Beyond emotional support, she supported him with practical things too, organising his anxiety medication that had seemed too big a task to do himself at that moment in time and also supporting him with e-consultation doctors’ appointments.
Because of her support, T has come on leaps and bounds: “I am now much improved and we’re down to less than three contacts per week”. Having a comfortable base to live in, alongside renewed stability and calmness has enabled him to get stuck into activities like growing vegetables and sunflowers and taking part in an art competition in which he made a wooden sculpture.
As the property is in Wales and lockdown is still very much as it was, the service has had to continue to maintain these regulations, but over time staff and service users have adapted well and developed coping mechanisms.
In a post-pandemic world and a post-lockdown service, T hopes that staff there will take forward new successful ways of working: “I think there’s a consensus that considering more frequent, shorter phone contacts per week and having fewer property visits might be a beneficial change in support”. Lockdown has demonstrated that remote contact can, in certain circumstances, be managed effectively.
Many of those in our housing services receive support which goes far beyond a place to stay. The emotional and practical support provided by staff help some of the most disadvantaged people with their needs, be it mental health, substance misuse or support with day-to-day tasks. It is clear that without the interventions and the presence of our critical workers, the experience of many during lockdown would have been much more difficult.
Prison and resettlement during lockdown
Over the previous weeks, we have been focusing our features on members of our staff who work in frontline services across the country, in resettlement, housing, health and education. They have painted a picture of how our services are adapting to COVID-19, and how the people hard at work at the forefront are feeling. Now, we hear from the people who use these services, the people who are at the centre of all that we do.
Lockdown in prisons has placed greater restrictions on the freedoms of a vast majority of prisoners, with many spending most of the day in their cell. Whilst helping to slow the infection and death rate, it has lead to restlessness and detachment.
People we support in prison have told us that the lack of freedom during this period has brought extreme levels of frustration: from “been locked in cell 24/7 and not having anybody to talk to”, to “the amount of bang up is what’s stressful and no education or work”, and “misery for everyone who has no regime, no gym, no visits, no work, just misery”. Amplified mental health problems – anxiety and depression – were also highlighted, with some attributing this to less social time and family contact, and others linking it to having nothing productive to do: “I would have liked to have had work like a wing job shared between us so I wasn’t always behind my door.”
The internal changes have, at points, mirrored the outside world. When one of our service users (X) left prison during lockdown, the world he entered upon release was very different from the world he left behind when he was taken into custody.
Whilst in prison, X had not been given much information about the virus or specific regulations: “we did not know much about what was happening outside but we knew the world was on lockdown”. His resettlement worker said that this lack of information has brought confusion to those released during this period: “the people I support tell me that in prison they had heard of society’s lockdown, but actually experiencing it on release was overwhelming and took time to get used to – many have expressed to me confusion at the 2 metre distancing rule, and face masks and gloves, which they are seeing on almost everyone they encounter”.
X spoke of his feelings of being released; for many this is an already unusual experience, made even more surreal during this crisis: “when I came out it was overwhelming because things were very different. It felt a bit weird because I was worried about the virus, obviously a lot of people have been dying”. Whilst X was overwhelmed primarily about health, other service users told us that finding employment and housing was concerning, as well as the switch to remote support: “sometimes I feel uncomfortable speaking on the phone and prefer speaking in person”. We have also seen service users experiencing greater difficulty because of shops being closed, including being unable to buy new clothes or bedding, or even accessing foodbanks if they’re waiting on benefit payments. For some who may usually go to an internet café to sort appointments or apply for Universal Credit, this has increased the barriers they face even more so.
Despite the confusing circumstances to enter into, X spoke of the joys of release, being met by his partner and resettlement worker: “I was happy because I was tired of the long bang-up in prison – we did not leave our cells much”.
The Nacro resettlement team support prison leavers from the prison gates and through their first few days on the outside, helping them with finances, accommodation, bank accounts, employment, medication. X revealed how he was supported: “my Nacro worker came to meet me and explained to me what I needed to do when I am released. She made sure I went to my probation office and also got me registered with a GP for my medication. This was really good because I was feeling a bit overwhelmed”.
Since being released, things have gone fairly smoothly for him, with the help of his resettlement worker: “I was able to get into the flat that was given to me by the council and I was checked up on to see how I was getting on. I got money from Universal Credit after a few days so I was ok”. His resettlement worker has continued to support him in the community: “I received calls from her regularly just to check up on me. She has also been communicating with my sister too which helped me because sometimes I can’t talk to my family because I feel like a burden. I am happy to be out of prison”.
For many without support and who are entering a particularly uncertain world, it might not be so plain-sailing. Yet despite an overwhelming task of settling back into the community in a time of magnified anxiety, the right support coupled with determination can bring success.
Recovery Near You substance misuse service
We hear from N, who works as both a Practitioner and Support Worker in our Recovery Near You substance misuse service based in Wolverhampton. The service provides specialist to support to anyone who is misusing alcohol or drugs, helping service users detox, look closely at their addiction, understand their behaviour and support them to move forwards.
In typical ‘pre-lockdown’ times, Recovery Near You (RNY) offers phone support but the majority of their support is face-to-face with service users sitting down and talking with staff directly. Like so many services, RNY has had to transform the way it works, making sure that service users are not left without critical help. A lot of the support has moved to phone, but they continue to offer some face-to-face support for service users who need it most, following government guidelines using PPE and social distancing.
On the phone, N completes assessments about people’s drug or alcohol misuse. “You definitely have to adapt your approach”, N says, “with face-to-face, you can see someone, read their body language, see if what they’re saying matches up with how they are presenting”. Over the phone, N has found herself asking a lot more in-depth questions. She worries that compared to physical sessions people won’t open up as much because they might have other people around them. And of course accessibility is another challenge: “it can be difficult to maintain relationships with people who don’t have phones or who are hard to get hold of, many of whom are homeless” N says.
But they have been working closely with other charities to get phones to anyone without. “I work with a lot of very vulnerable women who are predominantly sex workers, so I’ve been working with partners to get them phones if needed and then making sure I keep in contact with them by phone every day,” N says. With others, they can contact them through the service user’s key worker, arranging a time to call the key worker’s mobile when they are present. There is a lot of joined-up, partnership working going on with the service user as the focus. Because of this, they have had a lot of ongoing successes, people who are not just engaging positively but who have dramatically reduced their drinking or drug use.
For the lower-risk alcohol or drug-users, the weekly face-to-face group sessions are now one-to-one, over the phone, and they are now exploring online group meetings. For new people coming into the service who use heroin and who need a prescription, “we assess the over the phone, then they drop in to give us a urine sample, and then again to see a prescriber, and depending on their level of risk further support can be over the phone or face to face if higher risk”.
N also reflects on the wider impacts of lockdown, both positives and negatives: “we have seen a huge increase in domestic violence and a lot more of these kinds of referrals from social care and the police. People are facing huge difficulties and we are trying to support them however we can”.
N also says that “it has also been a time for people to reflect on things that have happened in the past, which can bring good or bad results”. But it’s clear that for some, this period of reflection sparks a desire for positive change and high levels of engagement.
One recent success story involves someone who had been initially referred to a mental health service because of her depression and anxiety, but because of her excessive drinking was passed on to RNY. Often, N says, clients don’t realise they have a substance misuse problem, and this woman felt the same “despite drinking a bottle of wine every night for the last 15 years”. N worked with her for 7 weeks, checking in regularly over the phone. By the end she’d reduced her drinking to 3 times a week instead of 7. The change N describes is powerful: “she’d noticed a huge improvement in her mood and felt she no longer needed the mental health services; she also had a much better relationship with her children and her partner, and feels able to cope without the use of alcohol. It’s great when you see this impact”.
Whilst N is looking forward to returning to more face-to-face support and “seeing people in the flesh” it is clear that her consistent phone presence for service users both old and new plays a critical part in helping people navigate tackling addiction in what is already an incredibly difficult time.
Revisiting our Resettlement Advice Helpline
We hear from, R, another of our helpline advisor from our Resettlement Advice Service. At the beginning of lockdown, the nature of the helpline had “changed overnight” with an influx in phone calls from prisoners who were confused about what the crisis meant for them… read this here. We revisited the team to see what things were like now.
Of course the most glaring similarity between the beginning of lockdown and now is that the team are all still working from home, a challenge that they are continuing to adapt to. R says it hasn’t been easy but with regular team communication and solid working practices they have been able to keep the helpline running smoothly, solving problems and responding to queries both typical and unusual.
“Over the last few weeks, we’ve felt that the helpline has gradually returned to normality”, R says, probably a combination of less initial uncertainty about changes, people getting used to the lockdown measures in place and also the expansion of the helpline in providing specialist support for prisoners from additional members of Nacro’s justice team.
Where they have had greater capacity from the extended helpline team, they have in turn had an increase in the usual kinds of helpline enquiries. “We are now seeing less worried family members calling about their loved ones in custody than we did in March and April as more guidance and clarity is made available”. Whilst there are still issues with prisoners being released without accommodation, they are seeing a measured return to their usual enquiries about disclosure and other criminal record or justice-related issues.
The helpline also provides support to employers, helping them to fairly recruit people with criminal records. There’s been an in increase in enquiries of this nature, “suggesting that businesses are continuing to recruit and people are applying for jobs again”.
From momentary telephone and email advice to prolonged case work, they have continued to support people with criminal records and ensured they are treated fairly and lawfully: “recently we successfully advocated for a pharmacist who’d had their conditional offer of employment withdrawn by the employer. We worked to reverse this and the individual is in the process of sorting out a start date”. It is clear that this kind of problem still exists, requiring their efficient and informed approaches.
When asked about his biggest worries for the near future, it focused around the struggle in gaining employment by people with convictions: “because of the higher unemployment levels as a result of COVID-19 and the subsequent increase in competition, I’m concerned people with convictions are going to find it even harder to find work. I anticipate more advising, supporting and challenging to ensure those with criminal records are treated fairly”. Looking at some of the feedback received (below) in the last few months, it is clear that the team will do just this.
- “You have been absolutely blinding in your advice and support today. Everything you explained to me was done clearly and calmly. I’m very grateful to you for your non-judgemental advice“.
- “I cannot stress how important your website has been in helping me get back to work after a conviction. I had a young family and marriage to hold onto when I lost my job, so your support was a life saver“.
- “You have definitely restored my faith in humanity and I really feel that the only way for people to be able to be rehabilitated is for them to be given a fair chance in life“.
Education and Skills Centres
We hear from a Senior Tutor, S, who leads two of our Education and Skills Centres in the East of England as part of a regional team. The Nacro Centres delivers Study Programmes for 16-19 year olds, with some opportunities for 14-16 year olds and adults who might have struggled with mainstream education. There are a range of vocational programmes, from childcare to motor vehicle, English to maths, including work experience and one-to-one support.
The Nacro Education and Skills Centres deliver face-to-face learning; the technical subjects are inherently practical, so remote learning has immediate challenges. S says the focus is on creating new ways to engage learners, whether through academic learning, pastoral support, or extra-curricular activities, blending both online working and paper-based approaches. They are doing some lessons over video, and staff email learners at the same time that they would normally see them, maintaining a sense of timetable and routine: “We want our learners to make progress with subjects, so we continue to encourage them to keep their aspirations high”.
Despite the crisis bringing immense immediate change to frontline services, S says Nacro teaching staff were ahead of the game and able to do some critical preparation before the centres’ closures: “we prepared lots of paper work and paper-based packs for learners to complete.” Nacro learners are using an approved App with which they can photograph each page that the App then collates into one PDF document for tutors to mark online. It has forced the team to be more innovative and use new kinds of technology: “we already have good equipment in the centres for this, but it has pushed us along even further”.
For learners who might struggle with accessibility of Microsoft programmes or devices at home, they have to consider other options and so the approach is fundamentally person-centred; where some learners can engage regularly online, others might have to be reached through phone calls, or even social media channels. “Our learners use social media a lot, so we’re trying to give learners structure on social media and, by extension, in life”, using these platforms for activities like a push up challenge, a weekly quiz, and photo challenges.
Engagement levels from learners has been solid, even with those that might have struggled to participate when centres were open as normal: “there’s not been many weeks when we haven’t got all learners engaged or doing work”. All learners receive a minimum of one phone call per week which might involve checking in on wellbeing, that they understand COVID-19 regulations, talking about work or next steps towards employment or further learning. S says he has been continually impressed by the “innovative” ways staff are engaging and the ways learners are adapting: “our learners are particularly vulnerable so having consistent activities gives them a sense of purpose and motivation”.
As usual, the days are extremely changeable. Some staff may work with learners to give feedback about completed assignments, others may be engaging with learners who need emotional support. One constant thing that S highlights is the daily morning meeting with the team: “we do briefings, talk about what happened the day before, whether there are concerns with any learners around work or welfare”. It’s these regular meetings, he says, that provide structure and social interaction, a reminder that they are all in it together: “our centres are lively places and a big part of them is interaction, so working from home has been challenging socially”.
It’s not just the processes of teaching and learning that have drastically changed, but the processes around assessment and awarding qualifications. This is a challenge for the sector and having the support of the central team and colleagues across the country is critical. Right now, they are doing teacher-calculated results for the majority of courses. The more practical and competency-based assessments in, for example, the fitness courses means these qualifications cannot be awarded until the centres re-open. A worry for S is that “a lot of these practical courses happen in local gyms so until gyms re-open, that could provide a challenge”, a concern also for learners who might be relying on this qualification to take their career further.
Where there have been worries and issues, there have been even more successes. From one Personal Training learner who was inspired to create her own fitness business including logos and an account on Instagram (a huge hit), to another learner who was recently awarded with a certificate recognising her lockdown achievements after she completed high quality assignments on her mobile phone. S says, “we’ve had great feedback from parents who are impressed with the systems of remote working we’ve created and how engaged their child is”.
It is clear that social distancing will play a big part in education for a long time after lockdown. Because of this and the success with learners, S says that the Nacro leadership team will be looking to make use of these remote approaches and also regular extra-curricular activities. Above all, this has been a learning process, for all the Senior Tutors and their teams across Nacro, working together and allowing them to refine the teaching and support they provide, always putting learners at the core: “whenever normal returns and whatever normal looks like, I’m hoping ours will look even better”.
Young Person’s Housing Service
We hear from L and J, team members working in one of our housing services for people aged 16-25. The scheme houses young people who present as homeless and supports them to develop skills to set up and maintain their own tenancy.
Like all our teams that work on the frontline to provide vulnerable people with critical support, this young person’s service has undergone a transition and continues to readjust to the crisis. “The issues within our service and the support that is needed by service users hasn’t changed but we have adapted, introducing more remote support where we can”, explains L. There’s a lot more remote working and problem-solving, coming up with ways to support service users while keeping staff safe too. Because of the changes in shift patterns, “planning time has changed dramatically and we have to do a lot more immediate and short-term thinking”, says J.
The young people they support are vulnerable, so they need to provide a mixture of remote and face-to-face support. “It’s about negotiating that risk, working out the nuances of a new way of working,” says L. Personal protective equipment in the form of aprons, masks and gloves which they wear when they go in and “do what needs to be done” means potential risk from the virus is minimised.
J reveals that “some service users were initially surprised with the changes, but it helped them to realise that this was serious.” Most have responded maturely to the circumstances, but there has also been some strain and she has seen a significant increase in mental health problems. Many of the young people are marginalised anyway, L says, “they haven’t got that massive support network and they can’t see the friends they do have.” Face-to-face counselling from external providers has stopped now so the service is finding a heightened level of safeguarding issues; J highlights they aren’t just supporting them emotionally, but that “staff have really rallied together to provide food, DVDs and printable activities to individuals who are struggling”.
Maintaining positive mental health of the young people is fundamental and so L explains they have relaxed rules slightly, allowing anyone who is particularly struggling to stay with family. The support provided is fundamentally person-centred, and where those who are coping well do not need much engagement, others need round-the-clock telephone contact – “checking on people multiple times a day, whatever is needed”. Some of the young people don’t have a phone or don’t feel comfortable speaking on the phone, L says, “so where we haven’t heard from this person in a couple of days we need to go out and check in.” This might involve meeting up with a service user face-to-face to have a chat, practising social distancing but providing a physical presence. Ultimately, J says, “it is difficult to be sure of someone’s wellbeing without seeing them”.
Where the nature of interactions between staff and service users has changed, so has that between staff themselves. Now that they are often working from home, L shares that “all those little things we’d say to each other in passing in the office we can no longer communicate as easily”, potentially crucial snippets of information that now take more time and planning to share.
But there’s the emotional side of it too. Where J describes moments of feeling “demotivated” due to lone-working, L says it is “a difficult job now under incredibly difficult circumstances.” The already significant challenges of working with very vulnerable young people become amplified, which trickles down into a personal level. “Our staff are brilliant and so committed but it’s important to recognise that this is a challenging situation. We have to make a concerted effort to pick up the phone to our colleagues and check they’re ok.” There’s clearly a new form of emotional labour going on.
As the service works closely with other agencies, absorbing their changing working practices has proved challenging, described by L as a “domino effect”. Conversations have changed, and new kinds of battles have emerged to get the young people the specific help they need, whether that’s with social care, drug and alcohol services, or even medical intervention: “you’re even more of an advocate now for the young person”.
Continued dedication of staff, however, means that there are still many success stories. One new team member who only began working for the service around 10 days before lockdown started took on a case which ended up involving a very serious safeguarding issue. A young service user involved in exploitation had experienced domestic abuse; this staff member had worked tirelessly to ensure the service user entered an emergency women’s refuge, which means she is safe and receives all the support she needs for her complex needs: “a very positive outcome in very difficult circumstances”.
It is clear that despite the difficulties, adaptability and positivity are things that energise the team to keep going. In time, L says, they are sure to be reflective and assess what methods have worked for them, potentially solidifying these new practices to improve and streamline the support they provide. In the meantime, they will continue “rolling with the punches” and keeping the service users at the centre of it all.
We hear from S, the Operations Manager for our housing services in Lincolnshire for adults and young people. Alongside a place to stay, the support provided there ranges from low level help with tenancy management to higher level support with staff present on-site at all hours. Service users are often vulnerable, with drug and alcohol issues, sometimes with a history of offending or as victims of crime.
Much earlier this year, S says she was monitoring the initial stages of the pandemic, anticipating a fundamental transformation in the way they would be able to provide services: “We have services where contractually staff need to be on site 24/7 and I needed to consider what would happen if there simply weren’t enough staff who were well enough to work”. It became clear to her that there was a lot to prepare but she highlights that everyone has pitched in: “From early on we tackled the crisis as a team. The crisis has definitely energised us to prioritise and problem solve.”
The first step was identifying which staff and servicer users were the most vulnerable, including those with underlying health conditions. She knew that some of their tenants would need extra support with getting shopping and medication and some high-risk staff would need to work from home at all times.
“When you are used to working in a housing service and doing face-to-face work it can be quite a shock to work from home,” S says. But those working at home are still providing important support over the telephone to service users. With the higher level round-the-clock support it is clear that this cannot be provided solely from home working, so there is still a member of staff working in this way in these services, with managers also coming into services once or twice a week.
Continuing to go into services, although essential in this line of work, is also a source of anxiety for staff and this is something that is at the forefront of S’s plans, ensuring that her teams are ok. She reveals that “wherever possible we have tried to share the workload” whilst for the staff working alone in the 24/7 services they have put in place systems which alleviate stress. These include a buddy in the form of a colleague doing the same shift – but on the telephone – who they can talk to whenever needed, and also a change in shift patterns “so that those continuing to deliver 24/7 services work 4 days on, followed by 4 days off, which will allow them to unwind.”
We have seen how the impact of this crisis goes beyond the world’s collective health and into all aspects: social interactions, employment, hospitality, leisure, and housing. Where the health care systems are feeling the strain, accommodation services have also noticed a change: “People are still becoming homeless and in some cases it is because of the strain that lockdown is placing on families” S says. Since lockdown began, 11 homeless young people have been referred to the service; normally there is limited bed space for those with complex needs, but because of the current circumstances they were able to be more flexible, and after taking some steps to manage potential risks, they accommodated all of these young people. The commissioners have been part of these decisions and have enabled this to happen; it really is a multi-level team effort with the safety of service users at the core. S adds that the commissioners “have been very supportive – they have helped us with sourcing PPE which means we have had enough since before the lockdown began, and also with food and toiletries for the young people”.
Like all teams working across Nacro, S highlights that communication between colleagues is key to smooth transitions in practice. Their teams keep in touch regularly with conference calls and S ensures she sends collective emails to all her managers at once so they all receive the same information: clarity and consistency, but also accuracy in periodically identifying changes to local procedures in relation to Covid-19. “Across Nacro, housing area and operations managers from different housing teams have been engaging in more regular conversations to share updates, ideas and problem solve together in a way that we didn’t before”, adding that this is something they will be sure to continue.
Regular communication with service users as well has been important in avoiding risky or worrying behaviour, minimising extra unnecessary work. Initially the staff working in the young people’s service were concerned about how the younger service users might respond to the restrictions of lockdown. Staff spoke to them about the circumstances, explaining “that we might need to change the way we support them if the government put restrictions in place”.
These kinds of conversations will have played a huge part in how well the service users have mostly adapted, making the jobs of the support staff that little bit easier: “I have witnessed our young people observing social distancing very well”. In cases where there have been issues, they have continued to communicate on a personal level about the safety of their own families put at risk, but also on a wider level about government advice which “has encouraged them to respect the restrictions in place.”
One of the big positives of the current situation has been the sense of community that has come about. Facebook donations from members of the public have included board games and books to keep their service users occupied, whilst in some cases neighbours of their tenants have helped them with shopping and medication.
The complexity of this kind of service and support provided makes it fundamentally hard to completely mould it into pandemic-friendly systems of work. Staff must still go in and provide face-to-face support to some of the most vulnerable in society, but you can see that the teams have worked tirelessly to find approaches that minimise harm to any person involved and to maximise the help they can continue to give in the circumstances; they truly are hidden heroes.
Prison Resettlement Teams
We hear from two members of one of our prison resettlement teams: a Resettlement Advisor and a Team Manager.
‘Proactive, persistent and flexible’ were the words which came across when both J and F described how they had managed to continue to provide support services remotely. Where J normally works in a prison providing resettlement support to people who are getting ready for release, F manages a team across a number of prisons. Like all of Nacro’s resettlement workers, they were moved out of their prisons and began working from home when prison lockdown began.
J says she is one of the lucky ones. “I work in a prison which has been really organised and we have set up good communication channels between different teams.” She continues, “In many ways, I am still doing what I did before, but from my house. I am helping people get support with their finances, get ID before release, and find somewhere to live.”
But the big difference of course is that J can’t see or speak to the people she is trying to help. “Those are usually the conversations which give us the crucial information to help us do our job, and when we talk through options and make sure we get the right forms signed and prepare people with everything they need ahead of release.” Letters can at least provide practical information to service users. F adds that there is a lot of variation between prisons – in some prisons they are able to send emails to prisoners soon to be released, containing critical information about their release day. The service user cannot respond, but at least they can prepare people in some way. But this isn’t possible in all prisons.
F’s teams have adapted and overcome many challenges already – they have found a way to submit an application for ID without being in the same place. They are proactive in getting hold of the prison discharge lists and contacting probation officers to offer support and see what additional help they might need. The one thing still frustrating J is not yet finding a way to set up a bank account for someone as it needs a witness to the applicant’s signature. “I haven’t given up yet though!” she says. She has suggested an interim solution, which the prison is looking into.
The team have highlighted the particular effectiveness of receiving 12 week discharge lists so they can plan ahead for people leaving prison. But the challenge they face is finding out which prisoners have come in recently, including those on 1-2 week recall, who may have an immediate financial or accommodation need. People newly entering prison are at risk of eviction or ballooning debt. Many will be already vulnerable to the revolving door of re-offending, potentially even more so right now, so it’s important they receive support.
It is clear that much of what the resettlement teams have achieved is through sheer persistence. They have created a discharge pack for the prison to give people which includes: key information about where someone is being released to, their housing reference number, how the team has supported them with ID and finances, and what they now need to do, including who to contact. It crucially also includes information about COVID-19 and what this entails for being in the community. A team in one prison are working alongside another CRC team to create discharge diaries for prison leavers which include updated appointment times. As they can’t be there themselves, they are relying on the prisons to hand out these packs and diaries but can’t guarantee this always happens.
Both J & F highlight these working relationships with prisons as fundamental: “Not being in the prison means I am totally reliant on staff in the prison to help – the Offender Management Unit admin team scan all my post to me which means I can access service user applications and can draft letters to creditors.” F similarly told us another team member she manages has “built up relationships across the prison which really helps.”
Finding her service users somewhere appropriate to live – obviously critical at this time – is J’s biggest challenge. Many of the people she supports would usually go into Approved Premises but with staff illness, she says that many are not taking new referrals or are cancelling places. “I then need to make very short notice referrals to local authorities.” says J. “Honestly, some have been brilliant. But others quite frankly have been terrible and I have had to waste so much time challenging refusal decisions which should never have been made.”
However, across the teams they continue to push hard to find suitable accommodation and staff have also found other ways to access funding to support privately rented accommodation.
Staff are currently still working from home but are keen to get back into the prisons. The focus from both J and F, despite the challenging circumstances, is on the people they support: “Together we have all found a new way of working where we can provide as good a service as we possibly can.” Feedback, like this below, confirms that teams are absolutely still striving to help some of the most vulnerable in society:
“Your intervention has made a real difference to Mr S, as he is now leaving the establishment tomorrow with accommodation arranged, a phone in hand and with every opportunity of a fresh start.”
Excerpts from the diary of a Nacro resettlement helpline advisor
As Nacro’s Resettlement Advice Service advisors began to work from home, the helpline changed overnight. Read the experience of one of our advisors.
Now in my fourth day of isolation and viewing the world remotely. I feel a little like Melania Trump in Trump Tower, except I’m confined with my partner in a bijou and compact one bedroom studio apartment in Deptford. Not quite the same… Had my first team meeting via Zoom today – strange seeing us all in our own parallel universe. Today the helpline was embattled with phone calls from despairing and worried prisoners and their relatives wanting info on COVID-19 and eligibility for early release. No one has any answers. There doesn’t seem to be any centralised point of contact for people. All prisoners, it seems, are in cell lockdown, we hear from people feeling desperate and suicidal -and I can understand why. I take a call from a prisoner in the South East who tells me they do not have in-cell toilets but as they are in lock down they are being given ‘receptacles’ to use. Another prisoner tells me they have run out of toilet paper and are using scraps of material.
Most of my colleagues are magically juggling home child care and the demands of the RAS helpline. By the way I’m growing a beard for my own amusement – a sure sign how desperate things have become!
Today I built a make-shift desk using two planks of wood from a dump, placing them on top of my bed side-tables. Covered in a yellow and red crushed velvet bed-throw and a bouquet of carnations it looked quite pre-Raphaelite and regal… Phone lines are still ringing like mad. Relatives are worried about their loved ones in prison – we are trying to reassure them the best we can with the limited information we have.
My boss has spent the morning speaking to colleagues from other services and researching the information that is available to pull together a Q&A guide to help staff answer COVID-19-related queries. Finally something concrete-Hallelujah! Our External Engagement Director is behind the scenes liaising with all the different departments and keeping us updated. Our Head of Justice & Health is working miracles trying to expand the helpline’s capacity with staff from other prison-based teams to support prisoners during this virus pandemic. Everyone has to adapt their priorities so quickly and these can change on a daily basis.
My week gets off to a good start as I take a call from a prisoner I first spoke to a couple of weeks ago. He had been due for release in a couple of days, was classed as highly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. He was supposed to be moving to Approved Premises, but didn’t have the details and couldn’t get hold of his probation officer, resettlement worker or his solicitor. He had run out of credit and had no way to even contact his family. I took a number for his sister and had contacted her. He has called to thank me, as this seemingly trivial intervention had resulted in his family finally managing to get in touch with his probation officer who had met him at the gate on his day of release to take him to his Approved Premises.
A few calls about employment and disclosure today provide some light relief from the emotionally-charged enquiries I take from prisoners. They are mostly from people applying to volunteer in their local area who are being asked to apply for DBS checks, wondering if a caution from ten years ago will be disclosed, or if they should mention a speeding ticket from a couple of years back. Finally some questions I can answer definitively!
For the first time today it suddenly dawned on me how completely different the helpline has become. No longer are the questions about disclosure and DBS certificates, but about who is vulnerable, who to contact to secure emergency housing when being released from prison with nowhere to go, infection control, early release eligibility. Usually, only 5% of our enquiries are from people in custody; now it’s over 60%. The nature of the helpline has changed overnight and we have had to re-train ourselves to answer a completely different set of questions. Questions that are socially and emotionally more demanding and complex: “I am diabetic and HIV positive so I am high risk. Can I still be released early” and “When I’m paroled shouldn’t probation give me temporary housing if my wife is self-isolating?” or “Will the substance misuse team still come and give me my methadone injections when I’m on released?” “Do I need to report to my probation officer on release… I don’t have mobile… is it classed as essential travel or will I be stopped by the police?” Each day produces a newer set of problems for which we try desperately to find the answers.
On my way back from the supermarket I took the snicket through the council estate; suddenly I was cocooned in a cacophony of banging drums, horns, whistles and shouting. It was the 8 o’clock tribute to front-line workers. For a couple of seconds, in that moment, surrounded by lots of chanting happy smiley faces, I felt as if I was in a music festival in another time. I wonder: out of all this tragedy and death, what good will come out of it? What will the new ‘normal’ be?