Abby Wallace, News & Features Editor
Community Committments despite Covid
If anything was to keep us cautious over the past few months, perhaps it was the idea that Covid-19 does not differentiate, that nobody is immune. It is true that everyone has been affected somehow, and as the past few months have proven, the need to keep ourselves and others safe has necessarily caused an upturn in how we live our lives.
As we are often, and naturally, concerned with how this is affecting our own lives and that of our families, it can be difficult to see the toll which it has taken on the most vulnerable. The upswing across the board makes it hard to realise that Covid-19 does, in fact, discriminate.
Team Haven is a non-funded voluntary cross-community organisation which provides care and support through an on-street outreach and foodbank programme to the homeless, vulnerable, or anyone facing hardship. Undoubtedly, Team Haven is only one of many charitable organisations which has witnessed a surge in demand for their services over the past few months.
I sat down with Julie, Jackie and Ann, three local women from Belfast who co-founded and merged Haven foodbank and outreach to form Team Haven in 2018 to ask about the impact of Covid-19 on their organisation, the people they support and their hopes to continue to provide a comfortable Christmas, despite the ongoing difficulties, for those who need it most.
“We have seen the numbers increase dramatically of people coming to our table,” Ann told me. “Our teams would normally be out between 7-9pm every night working for the outreach. But now you see our teams packed up and ready to go within half an hour, because there is just no food left, it is all gone. Last year we were only providing around 25 to 30 meals and this was enough. A case of water would last us two weeks. Now the need has doubled. Last night, we had about 70 meals to give out, and they were all gone within half an hour.”
Perhaps Haven’s greatest hallmark is their commitment to the premise that, ‘we never judge.’ Every day, the organisation welcomes to their outreach table and foodbank, people from across the community who are in need of the support Haven was created to offer. This doesn’t stop at meals. Significantly, Covid-19 has placed a great amount of stress on homeless and vulnerable people, who don’t have easy access to clean, comfortable spaces or the support from close friends and family which has guided most of us through these challenging months. Many of the people who rely on Haven, do so for mental support, company and guidance. After having to suspend their on-street outreach programme for months due to the public health situation, Haven are now seeing more and more people visiting for this very reason.
“You are a listening ear and a signpost for them too,” Jackie told me. “Sometimes, you are signposting somebody to go to the Housing Executive, for example. Their emergency homeless helpline is really good, but they are very overburdened at the minute. But really, a lot of the people who come to the table do have homes. But obviously, something is going on that they are coming back to the table every evening. Is it loneliness? Maybe their mental health is suffering, or they just don’t have the food at home because they can’t afford it. It could be a combination of things.”
It is not just Haven’s outreach programme which has seen a surge in the number of people needing their services. The foodbank, which is crucial for the day-to-day running of the organisation, storage of food and preparation of meals, has been overwhelmed with greater demand for food, toiletries and everyday essentials. Through a crisis of employment, living security and even greater blow to expendable income, for some families Covid-19 has rendered these basic necessities even more inaccessible. Julie explained to me how she has seen the situation play out at the foodbank, where she volunteers most days a week.
“These are people who have never had to use foodbanks before. They have always worked, always had jobs and have always been able to provide for themselves.”Jackie, Team Haven volunteer confronts an uncomfortable reality in 2020.
“More and more people are coming to use the foodbank. We packaged up 97 food parcels in October. The people that we are seeing are what they call the ‘newly hungry.’ These are people who have never had to use foodbanks before. They have always worked, always had jobs and have always been able to provide for themselves. Now they are facing this crisis of ‘eat or heat’, where they have to spend money on heating for their house and all their utilities or their groceries. Now with our work, they can spend their money on their bills and making sure they keep a roof over their head, and we can provide them with their groceries.”
The surge in demand for Haven’s services is a sign that their work is needed now more than ever. What makes it harder is that Haven is facing this ever-growing need with added monetary pressure from Covid-19. As a non-funded, voluntary organisation, Haven relies solely on donations from the public and local businesses, and with an ever-slipping cash culture, even small contributions collected through donation buckets have created circumstantial difficulties for the smooth running of the organisation.
Jackie explained this worry to me; “Since the Primark fire, our donations have suffered greatly. Since this fire happened, there has been little foot traffic around where our table is. We have been down quite a bit of money since then. And now on the heels of this, Covid-19. We have been lifting nothing in our donation bucket and the monetary donations have dwindled because people just don’t have the cash anymore.”
After the cancellation of their biggest annual fundraising event, the sleepout, which was scheduled to take place in March, Team Haven approached the first lockdown with a suspension of both their on-street services and fundraising lifelines that are necessary to keep the foodbank afloat. Last month, Haven was recognised by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest community funder in the UK, who awarded the team a donation of £10,000, to help ease the pressure Covid-19 has placed on the daily running of the organisation, allowing them to continue their work and stock the shelves of their foodbank. The administrative costs of the foodbank remain completely self-funded.
Speaking about the National Lottery Funding and the recovery it would bring from the cancellation of the sleepout, Ann reflected, “it will help us in a way because the money from the sleepout would have gone towards paying our rent and bills here at the foodbank. If we didn’t have this building, we would have nowhere to store any of our food for our teams. Haven would stop if we lost this. The National Lottery funding can only be spent on food. Now, with the funding, it means whatever we have surplus from our own donations, we can use to pay our rent, gas and electric.”
As I began to wrap up my conversation with the three women who are the backbone of everything Haven does, I began to reflect on the past few months and the hidden hardships this has created for homeless and vulnerable people we didn’t always see. In March, it was far from my imagination that we would be approaching Christmas with another lockdown. I wanted to finish by asking about Haven’s plans for Christmas. I asked what donations and support Haven need the most to continue providing for the vulnerable at Christmas and was reassured by what Julie conveyed to me.
“Toys would be great; we are always looking for toy donations at Christmas, and maybe some luxury food items as well. We are hoping to package up about 50 hampers this year. A lot of people don’t realise what goes on in the background. We have some local schools and charities who identify a few needy families for us, and we will deliver the hampers to them with a bag of toys for the children, so at least they have something to open on Christmas morning.”
I left the Haven foodbank feeling exceptionally humbled by my conversation with Julie, Jackie and Ann. What I was left thinking about the most is that over the past few months, to protect ourselves and those around us, we were encouraged to ‘stay home’ and ‘stay safe’, but for homeless and vulnerable people, this basic premise was often hard to realise.
Julie, Jackie and Ann are supported by a team of over forty outreach volunteers. Without their commitment and compassion, Haven’s extensive support network would be unsustainable. With their ever-welcoming and inclusive foodbank facility, the re-starting of their on-street outreach and continued crucial donations from the public, Haven has continued and will continue to support and provide for the most vulnerable. Their work is always needed and always accepted. Perhaps now more than ever.
Peter Donnelly, Editor
Belfast group Team Haven demonstrate all that is good about the Northern Ireland community. Too often the negative aspects of our society have dominated news headlines, due to the actions of a minority. Abby Wallace highlights that from its foundation, the volunteer-led charity at Haven have had as its central ethos an unrivalled committment to improve the lot of some of society’s most vulnerable. Whatever their impairments, difficulties or troubles Team Haven volunteers greet the charity’s users with a welcoming sense of belonging; a simple and straightforward attitude which our society takes for granted.
Team Haven are one of numerous charities across Northern Ireland who collectively possess an indomitable public and community service. On behalf of The Gown Editorial Team and The Gown Trust, we wish Team Haven, its volunteers and users best wishes and the best of luck in the run up to what will be an unusual and challenging Christmas period and the time beyond.