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Vital voluntary groups that provide a lifeline for vulnerable people are battling for cash and resources while the largely Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities they serve are disproportionately hit by the coronavirus crisis.
It is virtually impossible to fundraise but demand is soaring for the services of groups such as the Sickle Cell Society and Southall Black Sisters.
The coronavirus outbreak is already claiming BAME lives at a rate that far outstrips their proportion of the British population. Figures released by NHS England show Black people accounted for 5.8% of coronavirus deaths in England up to April 17, compared with 3.5% of the population.
Jabeer Butt OBE, chief exec of the Race Equality Foundation, told HuffPost UK BAME voluntary sector organisations were “often the most trusted and valued” services for their users – but were being hampered in their efforts to help during this latest crisis.
“From the evidence that we have been able to gather,” he said, “the already fragile black and minority ethnic-led voluntary sector has attempted to transform their offer of support, but are constrained by limited resources and a lack of digital infrastructure.”
Sickle Cell is an inherited blood disorder particularly common in people with an African or Caribbean family background.
The Sickle Cell Society, a non-profit organisation, supports and represents people affected by sickle cell disease to improve their overall quality of life.
The lockdown has seen a decline in vital community fundraising, yet service users are extremely vulnerable to contracting Covid-19 and there has been a surge in requests for information and advice through the society’s helpline, social media platforms and website.
A spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “The requests have been diverse, with people wanting to know about how they can best protect themselves and their families, the financial impact of staying home from work, initially questions around keeping their children home from school, and how they can keep protected whilst continuing to attend regular hospital appointments.”
Staff have been adhering to government advice by working from home and shifting meetings, events, and workshops into virtual spaces where possible.
“The helpline is being covered by extra members of staff to help meet this demand, and the society is working with our medical advisors to ensure fast and accurate information is available,” the spokesperson added.
The organisation has launched fundraising efforts such as the Sickle Cell at Home campaign to keep up with demand.
Southall Black Sisters, a charity that helps support Black and Asian women who are experiencing gender-related violence, is also facing fresh challenges.
It has been forced to move frontline services online so volunteers can work remotely.
Founder Pragna Patel told HuffPost UK: “Like many who work in the violence against women and girls (VAWG) sector, we have been worried about leaving the most vulnerable, destitute and marginalised – Black and minority women – who already face greater rates of abuse, isolation and discrimination.”
The organisation has had to find extra cash to support isolated and vulnerable women with additional support, accommodation and subsistence needs.
Patel said Southall Black Sisters is struggling to find the resources required for staff to work remotely efficiently, and that the costs of remote working are racking up by the day.
“Our IT systems are old and creaky – they are not geared towards high volumes of remote working by all staff,” she said.
“Bills and running costs have seen a significant increase. We have been compelled to buy additional equipment and improve and update server, software and other IT resources.
“An efficient IT system is vital not only to maintain core services but also to adjust to new methods of working and to find creative ways of delivering outreach, training and other services through social media and online mechanisms.”
Meanwhile, the charity has had to boost efforts to support its service users with counselling services, welfare checks, accommodation, subsistence payments, and food for migrant women and children living in temporary accommodation.
“We have seen an increase in self referrals from BAME women whilst experiencing a slight decrease in referrals from agencies,” said Patel.
“This may be because agencies are still adjusting to the new conditions and ways of working at the same time as some women finding a way of contacting us directly.
“However, we are also aware that there are many more women who simply do not have the privacy or the resources to contact us or report domestic abuse.”
A number of foundations have launched funding programmes to assist local organisations in responding to the pandemic.
Normally reliant upon donations from the public, Brixton Soup Kitchen has had to adopt a remote working policy and apply for grants.
The charity is strapped for cash and has been inundated with increased demand for its service.
Founder Solomon Smith spoke passionately about the team’s commitment to serving homeless people and families in need.
“[Since] the government decided to do the lockdown, my phone has been ringing non-stop with calls from people from all walks of life who need our help,” he told HuffPost UK. “The demand has skyrocketed and we have felt the strain because we don’t receive funding.
“So, I’m not going to lie, we’ve been breaking the rules; we’ve not been staying at home during the lockdown. We literally cannot fathom that. If we stay indoors, who’s going to be catering for the homeless people? There’s work for us to do.”
Speaking from the soup kitchen base in Brixton, Smith said a team of seven volunteers were diligently preparing food packages to be delivered to some 200 service users.
As concerns around the pandemic began to intensify and the public began panic buying, leaving supermarket stocks depleted, the charity was left with even less to go around. At this point, Smith and his team began to dip their hands into their own pockets to keep the service afloat – something they’re still having to do.
“When everyone was hoarding food, that was the hardest two weeks, because we literally couldn’t get any donations and had to beg and borrow, raise what we can go to the supermarket, buy food to make packs and deliver.
“We were also forced to buy products for the packs from local corner shops –which are 10 times more expensive.”
Fortunately, an NHS trust has donated personal protective equipment to the soup kitchen volunteers, who are endeavouring to stay as safe as possible while risking their health to help others.
And despite closing all 400 of its restaurants in response to the Covid-19 outbreak last month, Nando’s has privately opened two of its branches specifically to cook meals for the charity, HuffPost UK can reveal.
“Nando’s has been one of our biggest supporters and we collect around 250 hot meals. This happens twice a week,” Smith said.
“Seeing the reaction that we get from people – that’s what inspires me to go harder for them. I find it difficult to go home and sleep at night knowing there’s someone who’s actually in need.
“I’m not saying we can save the world but if we are able to save some then that’s a good thing.”
However, some organisations are faring better than others.
The African & Caribbean Mental Health Service is voluntary group funded by the NHS and based in Manchester. In light of the ongoing lockdown, it now delivers its services remotely.
“We’re a small voluntary sector organisation but we started investing in additional laptops and mobile phones so that, as of March 23, we all started to work from home,” said director Jeanette Stanley. It meant they could keep giving one-on-one care – either by video or phone call.
The only obstacle has been for staff members who are less confident with technology and require additional support with adapting. However, with practice, Stanley says, confidence has grown.
“I remember a couple of years ago we raised the idea of doing some of our sessions on Skype and the commissioners were really against it at the time,” she said, “but now they’re all for Zoom, Skype and all that, so it’s done a 360 turn. Maybe, in future, we would be able to provide services in that way.”
And unlike the aforementioned organisations, funding isn’t an issue for ACMHS at present as it receives money from the local Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG). However that could change depending on the duration of the Covid-19 outbreak.
What’s more, the Department of Health and Social Care recently made £5m available to support voluntary and community sector mental health providers experiencing an increase in demand for their services due to coronavirus.