Social isolation during the Coronavirus lockdown has impacted on the mental health of already ‘traumatised’ homeless people in the city, the Derry News has learned.
Homeless support services in Derry ensured that nobody fell through the cracks and were left sleeping on the streets during the pandemic.
The past eleven weeks have been demanding for service users, some of whom suffer with addiction issues and other health problems.
Coronavirus cases have been kept to a minimum in homeless accommodation and, in extremely challenging circumstances, staff have educated residents about the need to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
First Housing Aid & Support Services (FHASS) offer a range of services inclusive of accommodation and support in the North West and throughout the province - this includes addiction services such as Damien House.
The service aims to help individuals and families who are homeless in their transition from temporary accommodation to permanent accommodation.
It was established in 1989 in response to rising levels of homelessness and housing disadvantage in Derry.
Since then it has developed innovative projects and services to assist people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
Its Floating Support and Resettlement Services continue to support people already living in their own accommodation who are finding it difficult to sustain or maintain their homes.
Throughout the weeks of the pandemic this service maintained daily contact offering support, help and guidance to people in difficulty, be that benefits, loneliness and isolation or help with medical issues.
Director of Operations at FHASS, Eileen Best, told the Derry News: “Before the pandemic hit it was difficult to support people who may be vulnerable, have a range of complex needs addiction and poor mental health.
“Many of our service users have experienced excessive trauma in their lives in their journey into homelessness.
“COVID-19 has added more trauma to people who were already under stress.
“This extreme situation and lockdown is undeniably having an impact on mental health for some people.
“First Housing have been lucky, the logistics of our buildings mean that our services users have their own space and most of our projects are to a great extent self-contained.
“It has to be recognised that other agencies have not had that luxury for clients to self-isolate.”
She continued: “Undeniably the homeless are a group who face particular risks due to lack of facilities, shared accommodation, exposing them to close contact with others.
“Even for families the lockdown experience has been hard with no visitors allowed into projects; in the main this was for health and safety to minimise infections.
“This has meant to a great extent families can feel socially isolated from extended families who previously had been a huge source of support.
“It is not easy having to entertain young children indoors day after day when schools, shops, parks are closed. Some of our families found themselves being parent, teacher, whilst working from home with the associated stress this incurred.”
Photo: Mother and son Stacey and Cathair McCafferty during lockdown.
This period was challenging for staff who went above and beyond their normal duties to support residents.
Within the accommodation projects staff worked every day on the frontline managing a ‘very difficult situation’, Eileen explained.
Where face to face support was impossible staff embraced the use of technology in the form of Zoom, WhatsApp and Facebook to offer help.
Initially, social distancing proved difficult, particularly for young people, but they quickly gathered how important it was to follow government advice.
“We wanted our service users to behave responsibility and stick to social distancing guidelines,” Ms Best said.
“Understandably, this was difficult for young people, they felt they were immune to the virus and it was hard also for people suffering from addictions.
“Families were better at social distancing but with staff guidance service users quickly took on board that it was not just for the benefit of themselves, but for all those within the projects, inclusive of staff who were leaving their homes and coming to work everyday to return at night to their families.”
She added: “It would be remiss of me not to say that it has been challenging for staff, their world is very different to pre COVID-19.
“Offices have been re-arranged to allow social distancing, cleaning regimes are regular and ongoing and staff have stepped up to the role they found themselves in.
“Our staff tell us that in the early days it was frightening for them to come to work day and daily, public transport was running, but there was a real fear to use it.
“They recount how eerie it was coming to work in town that was in lockdown, but to their credit they came every day.
“As an organisation we have met these challenges by assuring our staff that we value and support them in their role and will do all that it takes to keep them safe.”
Photo: Chloe Whoriskey and daughter Brooke staying active during lockdown.
FHASS has worked in partnership with a wide range of agencies, inclusive of The Northern Ireland Housing Executive, Supporting People who fund our homeless services and the Western Trust.
Integral to the cause, were colleagues from the Voluntary Sector who were keen to lend support where it was needed.
“During this pandemic partnership working was the thing that stood out the most, and of course the generosity of the Derry people. I believe this will continue post COVID-19.
“The Housing Executive worked hard to ensure that no one was rough sleeping in the North West.
“Our Street Outreach regularly patrolled the streets to offer belt and braces and pick up those who may have fallen through the net.
“Supporting People made additional resources available to cover some of the additional costs associated with the Pandemic.
“There was regular communication from all these agencies regarding support with handling difficult situations, regular guidance documents, testing for staff and service users.
“The Western Trust had regular meetings to ensure that things were progressing well and that agencies had the PPE they required in order to work safely in supported accommodation for the homeless.
“Due to this remarkable teamwork I am pleased to say that our services were managed admirably and we have kept the numbers of infections down within our projects.”
Service users are finding that as restrictions ease they can socialise more.
In the event of a second wave the services will be better prepared, but for the sake of service users they hope that prediction does not materialise.
“It has been good for them to have some semblance of normality,” Ms Best observed.
“That is not to say that our young people were not up to challenges in lockdown.
“Through the use of technology they completed the 5 steps to Health and Well-Being, comprising physical exercise, nutrition and healthy eating links to learning and showing gratitude.
“Our #Workitout Project funded by the National Lottery Fund kept the challenges rolling and the young people loved it.
“The National lottery also allowed us to support young people who were facing digital barriers and who were isolated in the community and we thank them for that support.
“We at First Housing know that we are not out of the woods yet and our role now is to take
the learning from the first wave of the pandemic and apply it if a second wave comes.”
There have been concerns about a spike in homelessness post-COVID-19 but Ms Best believes it was possible to look after people during the pandemic the ‘surely’ it can be done after to ‘end rough sleeping for good’.
The NIHE are looking as options to help do this such as Housing First where the model is the person is housed first and the support is linked in to them in the community.
“NIHE take the view as we all do that one person on the streets of N Ireland is one too many,” Ms Best concluded.
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