By Charlotte Kirin – on Twitter as @ckkirin
The Sunday before lockdown I took a template I saw on Facebook and printed out a simple leaflet with my name, address and phone number, offering to do shopping or be on the end of the phone for anybody who was self isolating or unwell, and I delivered one to each of the 40 houses in the street where I live.
Over the next few days I got texts and messages through the door from several people, every one of them offering help. We set up a Facebook group and a WhatsApp group, and suddenly the street where I’ve lived for a couple of years started to feel like a community, with links and chat and greetings that hadn’t been part of our previous, differently shaped lives.
I was aware that across this town and across villages and towns and cities all over the country, people were setting up amazing, strong, vibrant schemes and groups of varying complexity and size. I started seeing questions on social media about data protection, DBSs and how to handle money. By staying at street level, we avoided that. Anything that anyone did was just one neighbour helping out another, and between us we could be reasonably sure that we had awareness of each household, and the only thing that we needed to know about anyone was that they knew help was available if they wanted it.
Someone who has an organic vegetable box business set up a community food scheme, offering to deliver food to ‘community champions’ across the town, who would then distribute it, collecting donations from those who were able to contribute. I signed up to that. I also responded when the council asked for people who had set up any sort of community or mutual aid scheme and sent my details through to them.
Suddenly, I became the first person in the street to need the help I’d so glibly offered. I came down with symptoms of the virus, I had no paracetamol – there hadn’t been any in the shops for some time – and also, I had arranged to take in and distribute a food delivery and there was now no way I could do that. I put it to the street and handed it over. Very quickly I had paracetamol posted through my door and offers to manage a stall with the donated fruit and veg in an accessible garden. The job I would have taken on myself and which would have strengthened my connection to the households who responded suddenly became a joint, shared venture, with more varied and richer links for not being managed by a single person.
At the same time, I was aware that councils were stepping into new roles as they put in place the structures they needed to in order to operate to the scale the lockdown demanded of them. Of course, as a council, they had never stopped responding to essential need, and there was a clear awareness of that requirement to keep those duties at the centre of all that was being asked. Colleagues in established teams were adapting quickly to ensure that they were still available and responsive, taking on new ways of working not only in that they were likely to be based away from offices and relying on technology for contact, but also in guiding people through a changed and changing world.
With my learning from Neighbourhood Cares, I was drawn to think about all the consequences of the council and the community working in the same space to this extent. The public response had been so positive, so heart-warming so comprehensive. How did it fit with statutory, county wide provision? What had I learnt in this reaching out to my neighbours, and how did it fit with what we’d learnt in Soham?
One shared lesson from both settings is that the primary driver in people is to provide help, or at least to reciprocate, rather than to leap to accept it. And, for all the things that the council have to do, for all the things that they are good at, all the things that no other organisation can replace, the relationship between a person in need of social care and the council does not feel reciprocal.
Everything about a street scale relationship is shared. The Thursday night clap for the NHS is a weekly opportunity for me to say a face to face goodnight to other human beings. I am genuinely helped by Pam (shielding at 1a) announcing on Facebook which bin, when. The person who bought me paracetamol was someone I’d never spoken to before, but now we swap recipes for using the unpredictable vegetables that turn up in the community food scheme. Sarah next door taking on the food champion role while I couldn’t meant it became established and embedded in a way that it wouldn’t if I’d kept hold of it.
It’s hard for me to ask for and accept help, and there’s no reason for me to think it’s easier for anyone else. I would say that the best lessons I learnt in Soham were from people who were most reluctant to be recipients. The man who resisted the lifelong labels he’d been given and who became a loved and valued member of the team, showing us how we could work differently and how we could be led by the individual, if we just allowed ourselves to be. The family who’d turned their backs on services that had been telling them for years that they needed input because the way they lived wasn’t quite good enough, who found ways to support the place where they lived, and who, once that was recognised, were able to ask for support in return. And then the lessons we learnt from the Wednesday morning drop in where we frequently had more people making tea than there were drinking it, and where we saw over time that the links being made to make life easier and richer, or to make independence possible, were far more creative than anything the team, as employees of the council, could offer. The lesson seems to be that the council has a vital role in looking for spaces and opportunities, and for stepping in where there is a statutory duty that only they can meet, but that some of what’s needed is better done within the context of a relationship with a person, rather than an organisation.
The local authority hold enormous responsibility and they need rules and records. But in community there is no such contract. And the view from here is that the risk isn’t somebody lending a drill that hasn’t been PAT tested, or somebody without a DBS putting a bag of shopping on someone’s doorstep. The risk is that at the arrival of forms and boundaries and lists of responses, and the duty and desire to fix things, people might choose to back off, go back inside and shut their door, taking with them their gifts for conversation, tea making, coffee buying, memory sharing , joke telling, song singing, garden clearing, dog walking, phone answering, along with the hundreds of other small, human, unmeasurable connections that make a community.
At a neighbourhood level, at a scale where you see the people who are asking for and offering help on a daily basis, there are implicit safeguards that don’t need forms. As with the self managed team, where we held each other to a standard of working excellently, as neighbours, we can hold each other to account. It’s not about a contract, but about the knowledge that today we’re offering help, and tomorrow we might need it, and knowing that we might want forgiveness for a loud late night, or the temporary blocking of our narrow street with a delivery or a move. I’m not claiming paradise and I’m very aware that we’re not in direct contact with everyone, but that feels OK – there’s enough of us keeping enough of an eye. We don’t know what’s happening behind each other’s doors, and we are still, for the most part, presenting our best faces on those Thursday evenings when we come out and applaud. But nobody has had to meet criteria to be part of this community, no one has had to fill in a form, no one has approached anyone else with the intention of fixing them.
And because what’s happening at street level is not based on a relationship that assumes that one party has a provision and one has a need, and because the acts taking place are small and frequent and over a small distance, daily and undramatic, there is hope that these relationships will sustain and strengthen into whatever world we find ourselves in beyond this lockdown.