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Local Area Coordination – ‘It’s all about People and Relationships…’ – article by Jennie Cox

In this article Jennie Cox, Senior Coordinator in the Local Area Coordination team at the City of York Council, explores how being an asset based area has helped organisations and communities across York come together through the Coronavirus pandemic.

Over the last month as we have found ourselves in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, the world has become a stranger, darker place where social distancing is the norm and many of the things we previously called normal have changed. Most of these changes have been difficult for most of us and the far reaching impacts of this crisis are incredibly hard to face. Many people are struggling to meet basic needs, apart from loved ones and facing losing all former familiar ways of life.

However, this crisis has also brought social conscience to the fore and some things in to sharp focus, including those values of asset based approaches which remain constant. This virus and its aftermath will undoubtedly change the way most of us think about our social context permanently. Many of us have been sharing stories of light in the dark, stories of compassion and kindness, which have been spreading like a counter virus. It is important to reflect on these experiences, understand that life goes on amongst the devastation. We can stand stronger and have a better chance of getting through this together if we reframe things and shift focus to ‘what’s strong, not what’s wrong’, to ‘what matters to us?’ rather than ‘what is the matter with us?’. These have been key phrases underpinning strength based approaches for a long time and are now as important as they ever have been.

People and communities have strengths and skills, which are not muted but amplified in a crisis. We have seen a lot over the last few weeks which indicate that when we get out of the other side of this we will emerge to a new normal, where this crisis has forced positive system change which we won’t want to change back. The LAC team in York are creating ‘system change silver linings jars’ in which we are capturing our thoughts and observations on a small squares of folded paper – about the changes we might want to keep or lessons we can learn from the responses we have seen. We intend to share these when we can meet face to face again and use this collection of thoughts to formulate our new system change plan and vision for the future in York and nationally with the LAC Network. In the meantime, we can share some glimpses of what we have been seeing and doing over the last few weeks, how we have been working differently and what things remain strong or grow stronger.

Although the impulse of some may be to take over and take control in a time of crisis, we have seen the benefit of taking a step back and allowing people to tell us what they need and give them space to create some of their own solutions. People have stepped forward to help family, friends and neighbours at hyperlocal levels, we have offered some gentle encouragement and advice about ways people can get involved and help themselves or others through various ways including a co-produced ‘planning ahead checklist’. However, they have mostly been doing this themselves where the groundwork has already been done to create connected communities and inclusion. The Council response has been proportionate in offering some coordination to more formal volunteering opportunities, where the response from thousands of people has been staggering, balanced with acknowledgment of the importance of neighbourliness and natural support networks. The latter is at the heart of everything the LACs do so we have been able to thrive in supporting the growth of these networks, building on what already existed and connecting initiatives where resources, knowledge and experience can be shared.

Our connections and relationships have enabled us to link up local and city wide initiatives, sharing information quickly and effectively in an ever changing landscape and acting as connectors between the system and communities. In challenging times I have been proud to be part of a team, a community and city who have used their strength based ethos, strong social values and willingness to adapt and flex in response to this crisis. The resultant wealth of positive action which has sprung up is amazing. I have been reflecting on how important the flexibility that underpins the LAC model is to adapting constructively to change and supporting others around us to do so. Our person centred approach has allowed us to listen, learn and adapt, on a daily basis. Our position, embedded in the community, walking alongside people as well as being embedded in the system has helped us to work with other key CYC teams and VCS teams to create a flow of information which has helped connect and inform strategic planning and enable the people of York to have a strong voice in this. We have fed community intelligence and experience in to development of a process map which will help frontline practitioners offer solutions to common queries around food, medicine and financial assistance. We have also fed in intelligence from the people we are walking alongside to support exploration of digital inclusion options for people who are extremely isolated with no phone or internet connection and been able to reach solutions quickly with partners to provide this much needed connection to some of the most vulnerable in the city. We have also adapted and used our small opportunity fund and other resources to provide emergency phones and televisions and books to people who have no access to any form of entertainment whilst self isolating.

Community hubs which had developed across the residential areas of the city offering connection and support before the Coronavirus crisis, have re-established themselves as self organising community foodbanks, delivering much needed food parcels and other help across localities. Many of these hubs are places where the LACs have key connections as their sites of weekly drop in sessions before social distancing measures took effect and they had to close their doors. We have retained those connections to support their adapted provisions. A great example of this can be found with Bell Farm Community Association (BCA) at their Social Hall. They have used their existing Fareshare connections to continue collecting surplus food from the supermarkets and distribute this to the community in line with social distancing guidance through collection or delivery options. They have enlisted additional volunteers from across Bell Farm and a neighbouring community in Tang Hall, to deliver food parcels, linked to three of the LACs in the East of the city, who have been connecting people to this help, out in cars making evening drop offs of parcels, offering support and information and advocating for extra volunteer support and food donations to help BCA expand their provision further during the pandemic.

LACs have been meeting with local Residents Associations via Zoom, helping them develop ideas and applications for ward funding which has been made available. We have been liasing with community Facebook groups and meeting virtually or by phone where possible. We have shifted to working from home with ease as we are used to remote working, a big change for us is much of our contact now has been remote or virtual. Our social media accounts have become vitally important, with key messages shared quickly through Facebook, where people can also contact us quickly and conveniently. We have been able to connect with existing community action groups via social media and connect with newly developed COVID19 mutual aid groups. Our existing relationships and roles in the community have allowed us to understand and mediate tensions which have arisen between some of the more established community groups and the newly developed initiatives.

As expert generalists we have found ourselves going through a rapid re-mapping of systems and communities alongside partners and citizens to keep ourselves informed of changes, key to our role as single points of contact for information, advice and guidance. Our work in the first couple of weeks of this crisis was focussed on getting new advice and information out to people who needed it. Increased queries have been coming through to us directly from people who haven’t been in touch before and through the dedicated support we have been offering to the CYC COVID 19 Help Team set up to support people of York with CYC employees re-deployed from other teams. Our established trust in communities means citizens have felt able to come to us with queries, concerns, fears and deteriorating mental health including psychosis triggered by the unprecedented events. Reassurance and emotional support to these newly introduced people as well as those we had previously been walking alongside remains a key part of our role. We continue to offer support to those facing complex issues in life exacerbated by this crisis, which has hit ‘pause’ on some of the good life development we were engaged in together. Some are forced to re-evaluate their lives completely. We are able to pivot and adapt with them where needed to help them make sense of things and work out what their new priorities are and new goals could be. Where people face challenges with their mental health we have valued our established links with TEWV mental health services which have allowed us to quickly establish a new system of clinical support and supervision through contacts in the Crisis Team, who are offering one to one support to LACs in place of group clinical case discussions which can’t currently be held. They have also shared a comprehensive list of online and over the phone resources which they have developed to help people through the crisis and we have, in turn, been able to share with citizens and partners.

We have also been physically reaching out to some of the most marginalised people at the edges of our communities who we are aware of due to our established networks. The relationships we have built have been invaluable in connecting people to each other in informal ways and we have all been overwhelmed with the offers of help and support coming from citizens we have previously walked alongside who now find themselves in a position where they can and want to help others. We have expanded our offer by relaxing our geographical boundaries to expand our reach to help with the crisis and moved to seven day working offering on call support to the CYC Help Team on weekends. We have also helped to ensure the continuation of the emergency YFAS card provision by agreeing to take this on as an extra responsibility, quickly developing a new process with other Council teams involved and two of LACs physically holding the cards and getting these out to people who need them.

‘How can we help?’ and ‘What can we do?’ are can do responses which have echoed across the communications we’ve had with people. There has been a willingness to share resources and work together to do the best we can to try and make sure no-one is missed or forgotten. This has been particularly strong in the response to ensuring people are fed, especially the most vulnerable, who are shielding or self isolating or those in temporary or inadequate accommodation who have no cooking facilities. LACs have been offering much needed practical help to get supplies to people known to us and have been working with others to develop robust networks to deliver food, medicine and longer term financial support. We have seen great examples of organisations showing willingness to take a collaborative approach and pull together. Move the Masses and York Goodgym are local charities who have shown great ingenuity in mobilising volunteers to get prescriptions to people and offer telephone welfare checks to those who are isolated. KEY and Carecent are two other small local groups we had pre-existing relationships with, who have adapted to continue doing the great work they do, offering our homeless community meals every day of the week and agreeing to be part of a menu of options for getting food parcels to the most vulnerable in the city where other options such as Foodbank, York Financial Assistance Scheme or our food distribution hubs just don’t fit. They have shown great problem solving alongside others to ensure people don’t go hungry, which has included working with local residents to set up community food banks accessed by hundreds of citizens every week. Another great example of kindness and people organising themselves quickly to do what needs to be done.

We continually reflect we are only as strong as our partnership working and relationships and have been more grateful for these in this crisis than ever before. Strong collaboration has been led at all levels from community leaders to system leaders and relationships have deepened to create some amazing innovation. Our hyper connected community ecosystem is coming into its own, reflecting years of work on the power of relationships, prevention and Asset Based Community Development, enabling active citizenship and people doing what they know is right for those they know best.

On a more personal and individual level these relationships seem to be what are getting us all through this day to day. I am lucky because I get to hear stories about the amazing work my team have been doing. Some of these stories relate to challenging welfare checks we have been conducting. One of the team went out to check on a young woman with mental health issues she had not been able to contact and was concerned about. She took a food parcel around as she was worried this woman may have been struggling to get food. She found the woman was in her house, self isolating and hungry so was delighted to have the food and set up a longer term arrangement for this. She also had not been able to get her mobile phone to work which is why no-one had been able to speak with her. Her family live away from York and had been texting her but she couldn’t reply, which she was really distressed about. They spent some time working out what had happened to her phone, which was a memory issue and easily resolved by deleting some of the messages she had stored. They were able to ring her family, who were relieved to hear she was ok and so happy to be reconnected. Another welfare check was a follow up of an introduction which had come through the CYC help team. The volunteer allocated to do welfare telephone calls had not been able to get through so one of the team went out to the address where she found no answer at the house but spoke to a neighbour who was very concerned. A call to the hospital revealed he had been taken in following dizzy spells and a fall, which was communicated to the neighbour, who was then able to track down his son who lived in the US through social media and inform him what was happening with his dad. He was understandably emotional but relieved to be informed and reassured his dad was ok and there were plans to discharge him home, which we could help support.

We have been grouping trips out to deliver supplies or visit people together so we only go out maybe twice a week. Every time I have been out on these visits I have seen three or four times as many people as I intended to – in their gardens or on their balconies. I have been able to stop and chat, at a safe distance, and these days brighten my weeks. On one of these days I was dropping off a prescription for a lady I have been walking alongside on and off for over two years. She lives alone and is self isolating as she has COPD along with other health conditions; she also struggles with her mental health related to a brain injury. This means she only sleeps for a couple of hours a day and has found the isolation hard as the days are long. Whilst I was chatting to her on the doorstep the Postman arrived at her block of flats. She thanked him for his duty as a keyworker and started becoming emotional, reflecting she didn’t know what she would do if keyworkers like him and myself weren’t around continuing to do what we do. It was a Friday and she went on to tell us she had been taking part in the ‘clapping for carers’ campaign every Thursday. She told us she had clapped so hard the previous week she had hurt her hand and felt she just didn’t make enough noise to reflect her appreciation so had been out on her balcony the night before armed with a wooden spoon and a pan. She told us, now with tears running down her face, she had been out there in appreciation for us and all our colleagues who were working hard and braving the frontline. The postman thanked her and excused himself before she made him cry – I followed shortly after him with teary eyes – before she could go and get the pan to show me the dent she had made in it! This emphasised we all have a part to play and something to contribute to helping each other through this, whether it is practical, frontline or from your home showing appreciation, kindness and compassion. Let’s hope some of the positive legacy left behind this crisis will be the viral kindness remaining in our communities, something which Emile Durkheim referred to some time ago as a ‘cult of humanity’ and Hilary Cottam referred to more recently as ‘relational welfare’ in her book ‘Radical Help’.

Earlier in the year, before this pandemic hit, Joe Micheli and I wrote the following, in a piece for the ‘Glass Half Full’ publication about the evolving asset based area in York,

“Behind its ancient city walls and along its narrow medieval streets, something new and transformative is taking place in York. Power is shifting and people are increasingly coming together to define what they want, and find new ways, to co-design and deliver services collaboratively. People’s strengths, skills and networks are being harnessed to provide self-sustaining solutions and a deep reservoir of community resources that people can draw upon to live well. A truly asset based approach to building community and wellbeing”

We went on to outline the history of this in York in which LAC is just one piece of the jigsaw, at the centre of where everything connects. We also outlined our vision for the future – a truly asset based area where solutions are co-produced and power is shared with citizens whose ideas, compassion and innovation make York an amazing place to live. This crisis has brought a lot of darkness with it but it has also brought out the best in people across the city and seems to have acted as a catalyst to achieving this vision and a wider shift to what NGLN called ‘the community paradigm’. Whilst we are looking for stories of silver linings to keep up spirits in York, this catalysed development of the asset based area and the values it brings may be the most significant and long lasting positive legacy of this new world.

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