People living homeless on the streets or in poor-quality accommodation are among the most vulnerable of all groups during the COVID-19 pandemic. And it is far from only a big-city crisis. Homeless people in towns and rural areas face similar challenges - with health and access to food always high on the list. Charities are adapting to the COVID-19 reality - including in Penzance in west Cornwall, where local food charity GROWing Links has faced a surge in demand for its Street Food Project service, which provides food to vulnerable people in the community.
The volunteer-led street food project serves homeless and other vulnerable people in towns, villages and in surrounding rural West Penwith. The pandemic means demand is more acute than ever. It also means GROWing Links has had to reorganise the way it distributes food, moving from collecting donated food and communal eating - now too risky under COVID-19 - to a system of delivering weekly emergency food packages, shopping through an outreach network of small volunteer groups.
“We rely on the community coming together for all we do,” says GROWing Links co-ordinator Lynne Dyer. “We’ve had to rethink how we do things.”
Digital and its impact
This shift in the charity's community operations has meant harnessing social media in new and more significant ways to help coordinate deliveries. “Everything is run online through social media,” Dyer says.
She says the street food project receives initial referrals for new service users via email or phone - it then texts those new users, adding their details to Google Docs. “This is accessed by our coordinators all working from home,” explains Dyer. “They then communicate with their delivery teams through Facebook Messenger groups and are given this week’s delivery drops. Meanwhile we have three volunteers packing food bags and accepting deliveries into the building. We organise our shopping through email and excel sheets.”
The charity is also using Google Docs to compile and organise food delivery lists.
GROWing Links uses Zoom, Skype and HouseParty for meetings - with the visibility of those platforms essential. “We need to see each other. Email fails that sense of togetherness,” says Dyer.
The charity faces other significant COVID-related challenges, not least fundraising for the PPE its volunteers desperately need. Digital is helping it to meet that challenge - it is using Crowdfunder to raise core costs and JustGiving to fundraise for the pandemic response.
Alongside its street project, the charity runs a community garden for vulnerable adults in recovery and rehabilitation. COVID-19 has changed the way the garden is used, only allowing groups of three at a time. “Lots of our users are elderly and do not use social media, so getting them set up whilst isolating and not being able to use the garden has been enlightening,” explains Dyer. “We opened a Facebook private group for those people to share and communicate with each other whilst we are on lockdown. This has worked well.
“It's a learning curve for me but I'm learning fast and those tools are essential to what we are now doing. The biggest single problem has been learning it on top of doing a very busy essential job at a stressful time.”
Advice to others
It’s important to get over the fear of not knowing how these things work, says Dyer. “Sitting and just working out at a very basic level has been essential to us delivering food to 230 people a week,”she says.
She says the easiest bit of the work to implement is virtual meetings. “This is great and I think we may carry this on after COVID, especially as everyone is so busy it's sometimes been difficult to get all the directors in the same room at the same time.”
The difficult thing, she says, “at first was sharing documents on google docs. I still don’t know my way around but we will expand this to directors too.”
Checklist - connecting your community online during COVID-19
Re-assess how you worked face to face before, thinking about what’s now impossibly high risk for your volunteers and client group.
- Prioritise where the most need lies. Tough times may mean tough choices
- Decide how you can keep your community connected through social media. Think about what works and what platforms your use now. Facebook and WhatsApp work well for this and are free as well!
- Consider other free tools, like Google Docs, to help your community collaborate.
Street Food Project Facebook page
JustGiving COVID-19 food package campaign
GROWing Links - details
Charity type: Service provider
Sector: health, homelessness, environment
Annual income: £30,000
Full-time equivalent staff: 1 and 2 part-time
The Community Garden
Posses Lane, Gulval
Cornwall TR18 3FJ
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