It is difficult to write about looking forward to the post-coronavirus world without slipping into overused phrases about ‘unprecedented times’ or ‘creating a new normal.’ Perhaps we simply have to recognise that 2020 is genuinely a historical inflection point and we are heading in a new direction. Now is the time to plan for which direction that should be.
After years of hearing that significant change is unrealistic, and we must simply tweak the edges, we have a once in a generation opportunity to put those from the margins at the heart of society. To do that we need small, specialist charities, which have experience with the most marginalised – many of which are currently struggling to stay afloat.
Covid-19 put pressure on a system that has been broken for years. Before this crisis hit, too many people were falling through the gaps in services that did not set out to meet their needs from the start.
In the housing sector, in which I have spent most of my career, inequalities are everywhere: the young or anyone reliant upon benefits are priced out of housing in almost every region of the UK; thousands of migrants a year are left homeless; and survivors of domestic abuse face the impossible choice between an abusive home and a night on the streets.
In the decades that I have been in the housing sector, none of that has been solved or completely addressed. But now it can be.
Highlighting vulnerable groups
An unexpected positive of the last six weeks has been society highlighting the experiences of those at the margins: those frequently overlooked, ignored or undervalued. Just last week punitive No Recourse to Public Funds conditions were ruled unlawful. Thousands have donated to domestic abuse charities, and people sleeping rough have been housed by local authorities and charities almost overnight. Local communities have come together to feed the most vulnerable, and ensure no one is left behind.
For the first time in many years we seem to have rediscovered that there is such a thing as society. And that society is looking at those that might need a bit more help - recognising that whether for altruistic or maybe for entirely selfish reasons ensuring everyone is looked after is better for all of us.
As lockdown measures begin to ease over the summer, many of these vital new measures and support systems are at risk of being forgotten. We are already hearing unconfirmed reports that government funding for housing homeless people in hotels during the pandemic has been withdrawn in Greater Manchester.
But in a world that has changed so significantly, we have the opportunity to get things right this time. That means setting out from the start to leave no one at the margins -to keep asking about who has been overlooked or who may have been forgotten.
To do this, we need to prioritise the expertise of small, specialist charities, who have been filling in the gaps of services to catch the most vulnerable for years. These small organisations are often very locally focussed - knowing their ‘patch’ intimately, or specialists in niche areas of need. This is not to say that larger organisations do not fulfil either of these, but a balanced and a healthy civil society ecosystem needs small as much as – and I would say at this time, possibly even more than - large.
Small charities struggling to survive
Right now, too many of these small specialist charities are struggling to stay afloat. Research published this week shows most charities are facing significant deterioration in their financial health. Smaller charities are particularly vulnerable: they are likely to have smaller reserves and more fragile funding streams, and many are missing out on high-profile philanthropic funding and celebrity support. At the same time – many are facing greater pressure than ever, as demand for services has spiked, and service delivery has had to change overnight.
At Commonweal Housing, we work to develop housing solutions to social injustices facing marginalised groups - those who are not best served by generic or mainstream systems. We are concerned about the 10 per cent or so that may be considered an acceptable fallout rate from a service that works well for the majority. All too often the fallout or failure for those individuals causes still further injustices and challenges. From young carers, to unemployed homeless people, to survivors of sexual exploitation and more, we run projects with small specialist organisations, working together to build innovative new solutions to seemingly intractable injustices.
This year, we’ve been looking for new partners to develop innovative housing solutions. We opened that call indefinitely, to accommodate currently stretched smaller charities, and acknowledging that the solutions for the future will be changing all the time. We are not looking for fully shaped solutions, but people with imagination to shape the possibilities of the new, ‘better’ normal.
But Commonweal is just one organisation – we must all come together if we are going to achieve real change.
The role of government and funders
Governments and independent funders both have an important role to play. They must continue to provide financial support to the most vulnerable charities as we come out of this crisis, when those supporting people at the margins are likely to need the greatest support.
We all have a vested interest in ensuring specialist charities survive this crisis – for the support they provide to the most marginalised, and for their expertise, which is too vital to be lost. Commonweal will be using our voice -and encouraging others to do so too - to speak out for the organisations which sometimes struggle to be heard.
As we work to build the society that will emerge from this crisis, we have a unique opportunity to put the marginalised at the heart of systems and services. Let’s not let it go to waste.