as told by five AMAT residents
Foreword by CEO, AMAT UK
COVID-19: Same storm, different boat.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown that followed impacted everyone’s lives, but it did not impact everyone in the same way – or as the saying goes – we might all be in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat. For the past thirty years, AMAT UK has provided accommodation and support to homeless people or those as risk of homelessness in Medway and we currently house 285 residents in 72 properties in Chatham, Gillingham and Maidstone.
As people who have experienced homelessness and who often have different vulnerabilities, our residents have each dealt with lockdown in their own way. This project brings together five residents’ stories of lockdown, highlighting how staying indoors affected their lives, routines and habits. Together they provide a needed insight into a very unusual and – for many people, our residents included – difficult time.
When AMAT UK restructured in February 2020, I took up a new role of CEO after 15 years of working for AMAT. As I began my new role, I was peripherally aware of Covid-19 but, like so many others, didn’t really believe that it would reach the UK or that it would impact us all so significantly.
At the beginning of March, as we started to develop a strategy for dealing with a potential lockdown, I wondered how I would keep everyone safe. I consulted with staff and after some long and intense meetings, we agreed a strategy on how to maintain a level of service while keeping staff and residents safe. We began making residents aware, via posters, phone calls and support meetings, that this was a pandemic and that it would affect the way we worked and the service they received for a while. I held off from implementing this strategy for as long as possible, because of my concerns about how a reduction in face-to-face support would affect residents. At the time I also felt frustrated about having to limit contact, after having done so much to create and develop a supportive community, especially within our thriving 411 HUB.
At the beginning of lockdown I personally covered the front office because I wanted to learn what issues and problems residents were experiencing. Without exception, every interaction I had with residents and staff, people spoke about how strange it all was, how much everyone missed their usual way of life and how anxious they felt about staying safe themselves, and about their loved ones. As the stories in this publication show, these themes continued throughout lockdown.
As an organisation we started to think creatively about filling residents’ time and dealing with their isolation. We put books and DVD’s in the common room, free for residents to take, we began doing online cookery classes and quizzes on social media, and our choir ‘Alive and Singing’ started Zoom meetings because we all missed each other. Lockdown highlighted how important online technology is to connect with others and to access information, entertainment and support. Suspecting that not everyone was online, we ran a residents’ survey to investigate this. The findings from the survey shows that there indeed was a digital divide, especially among our older residents. Some well-timed funding from the National Lottery Community Fund and Homeless Link enabled us to begin to address this inequality by creating a digital library where residents can borrow IT equipment and also by installing Wifi in residents’ houses.
As time went on and government guidelines changed, we moved from online to outdoors, with our new gardening project at nearby allotments and a resident-led fishing club. We started slowly and cautiously to increase face-to-face contact with residents. Again, additional funding has allowed us to buy more PPE, adapt the IT suite with dividing screens, and to increase cleaning frequency, which enabled us open 411 HUB again.
When I became CEO, I certainly didn’t anticipate having to deal with a global pandemic in the first few weeks of my new role. Things are still a long way from normal right now – there is still a lot of uncertainty and anxiety – but we have adapted well, and continue to adapt, to the challenges created by COVID-19. I’m also very proud of the resilience of the residents and the staff team, and am relieved that everyone is safe.
Jodie Geddes, CEO
Pam is in her late fifties and lives with her partner in an AMAT studio flat. They met seven years ago through AMAT when Pam and her brother became homeless as the result of their dad moving into a nursing home. Pam’s partner is disabled and she is now his carer.
Pam first heard of Coronavirus when the manager of the charity shop, where Pam volunteers three times a week, told her that the shop would have to close because of lockdown. On the weekend before lockdown, Pam and her partner went down to Chatham High Street, but none of the cafes were open and she thought to herself ‘this got to be serious if all the shops are shut, all the charity shops and Primark’. A few days later Pam watched Boris Johnson’s speech on telly, and again she thought ‘it must be serious then.’
While a lot of people went out stockpiling food, Pam didn’t. With only a small freezer box in their fridge she didn’t have anywhere to keep lots of frozen food. Pam used to go shopping every day, and she continued to do so during lockdown. Initially the shop shelves were half empty as other people stockpiled. It was especially difficult to get loo roll and bread, and Pam went all over both Gillingham and Chatham to look for bread, but it was sold out everywhere. ‘This has got to be serious when all the shops are half empty and you can’t get what you want’. Since then food became more available, but the queues continued and sometimes you had to wait half an hour or longer to get into Poundland or Iceland, but this didn’t really bother Pam. ‘Loads of people moaned, but if you got to line up, you got to line up, there is no point moaning, you will get in the shop eventually – I’ve got the patience of a saint!’ Sometimes after doing their shopping, Pam and her brother would sit on a bench in Chatham smoking a cigarette and the police would turn up asking them what they were doing and tell them they couldn’t sit around for long.
Pam was never one for watching the news, but when lockdown started, she began keeping up with all the news: ‘I have never watched so much news in all my life, reading on the teletext what it was all about’. When Pam was not out shopping, the TV was on and not just for the news. Together Pam and her partner watched all the soaps, like Emmerdale, Corrie, EastEnders and whatever else was on. The telly was the one thing during lockdown that Pam couldn’t have been without. At one time they had a power cut in the flat and while it didn’t last very long, Pam recalls: ’10 minutes without my telly, it was the worst 10 minutes of my life! Didn’t know what to do with myself, just sat there twiddling my thumbs’.
Without being able to do all the things Pam usually did and enjoyed, like meeting her friends at the weekly AMAT choir practice, or volunteering in the charity shop, or her fortnightly Bingo at Gala, life in lockdown was boring. ‘I did a lot of sleeping, out of boredom, I think. I would do my housework and then just sleep to pass the time away. There was nothing else to do. I had a lot of time on my hands… I didn’t mind so much in the beginning, but then after a while I thought ‘there is nowhere to go.’
Pam kept in touch with friends and family on her old mobile phone; her two adult sons who live in Northern England; and her good friend, another AMAT resident. Pam’s AMAT support worker also rang regularly to see how she was, which Pam really appreciated. ‘I love AMAT, I won’t hear anything said against AMAT. I wouldn’t be here was it not for AMAT, I couldn’t have slept on the street. I am grateful, we both are.’
Pam also spoke to Liz, the manager of the charity shop a couple of times. It was Liz who told Pam about the clapping for the NHS. The first time Pam heard people clap outside on a Thursday she didn’t know what it was all about, but then Liz explained and Pam also started clapping every Thursday. But then suddenly one week no one clapped anymore and it wasn’t on TV like it used to be.
Pam had an operation in January and although she was fine during lockdown, she still needed to take her daily medication. Getting hold of prescription medicine was actually a lot easier in lockdown, as she didn’t have to go the doctor’s surgery to get the prescription. They just sent it directly to the pharmacy and Pam would get a text when it was ready. Another small positive thing that came out of lockdown, was that Pam was able to save a bit of money because there were nowhere to go – no bingo and no cafes. But Pam did miss these things and looked forward to be able to go to the shops again – to look around Primark and the charity shops in Chatham, and to have a coffee in the High Street. Having this time in lockdown made Pam appreciate them so much more.
We are grateful to the AMAT residents who agreed to participate and to share their experiences of lockdown. All names and identifying details have been changed to protect their privacy.
Our thanks also go to Dr Anna Ludvigsen who listened to residents’ stories and complied them for this project.