BLOG SERIES: Perspectives on the pandemic

More than a year on from the launch of the National Emergencies Trust’s Coronavirus Appeal on 18 March 2020, we have asked our incredible funding partners to share their unique perspectives on the pandemic.

People Facing Homelessness

By Stuart Moore, Assistant Director for Services, Shelter


What difference has the pandemic made to the communities you serve?


Throughout the pandemic Shelter’s Telephone & Online Advice Services saw a marked increase in demand for our services. Demand for the national Helpline increased by approximately 10%, compared to the same time last year.


In addition to this, client needs understandably shifted toward the more immediate impact of the pandemic, with a significant proportion of people contacting us about Covid-19 related issues. For example issues around eviction, street homelessness, unseen homelessness such as sofa surfing, as well as tenants’ rights when landlords or contractors were demanding access to someone’s home during lockdown.


As Government response to the pandemic shifted, demand was also driven by a lack of clarity within the general public around housing policy. For example, the lockdown and tier systems created confusion around the eviction ban and individual circumstances.


What impact did you see on your services as a result?


Overnight, Shelter’s service delivery model moved to being predominantly remote based, with our network of 16 community hubs across England & Scotland closing, and all staff working from home. The way people access our services also changed rapidly to telephone or digital, and this meant that our people had to quickly adapt to new ways of working, especially for our remote advice services, whose advisors had to be able to access support themselves very differently.


As demand increased, our capacity decreased due to the direct impact of the pandemic. New ways of working, the need to provision our staff with adequate equipment to be able to effectively work from home, and the need to safeguard the wellbeing of our people, created multi-faceted challenges that needed to be quickly addressed.


Within a very short time frame new ways of working were adopted, and impressively our Telephone and online advice services continued to operate without interruption. A great example of this is the creation of Covid-related digital user journeys which were developed and published to our website within 4 days of the first lockdown in March 2020.


Since then our Covid related advice pages have attracted over 1million unique page views, far and above our most popular page to date. The dedicated Covid page is continuously monitored and updated to reflect changing and emerging user needs and continues to be the most visited part of Shelter’s website.


What has the funding from the Coronavirus Appeal enabled you to do for those people you help?


Critically in England the funds from the National Emergencies Trust has enabled Shelter to recruit and train an additional 22 Helpline advisors. Our advisors are fully trained as housing experts, going through an unmatched induction programme that enables them to deal with the whole range of housing related issues. As these new staff started to take calls, our service answered around 3 in 10 calls, a significant increase from the 1 in 10 calls prior to the funding.


Importantly, Shelter has committed to maintaining this level of advisors over the 21/22 financial year. This is in recognition that as the country moves out of the pandemic, the need for housing advice and support will only increase as the economic impact of the pandemic continues to be felt.


Shelter Scotland’s Helpline capacity was increased by 5 and a digital manager was employed to help with our Scotland-specific online advice offering. Shelter Cymru were able to boost the number of staff on their helpline, redeploying existing Housing Law Caseworkers to support the team; the National Emergencies Trust funded the equivalent of 4 frontline staff. In addition, Housing Rights Northern Ireland created a new digital role using funding from the National Emergencies Trust.


What challenges and/or opportunities do you foresee ahead?


Housing needs most certainly won’t go away, and in the short to medium term the need for our remote advice services will likely increase. In order to meet this need, our Telephone and Online advice services will need to continue to adapt.


A greater focus towards digital self-service for those people with less urgent and complex needs will be key, in order to free up our housing advice experts to focus on those people who are in an emergency situation. Therefore, our key challenge and opportunity now is to improve our digital advice offer, in terms of people’s ability to self-serve. We are also looking to make greater use of social platforms to support the development and growth of housing advice communities.