Mission Impossible

Pat McArdle CEO of Mayday Trust shares a raw account of navigating COVID-19 as an organisation offering supported accommodation and working alongside people experiencing tough times.

On March 11th Mayday Trust transformed from being an accommodation provider, an advocate for system change, walking alongside people going through tough times discovering system barriers, to JUST keeping people safe from COVID-19.

This required a change of mind-set, an understanding of working to a different purpose, a different environment and new processes – a fundamental shift, whilst staying true to our ethos of being person-led.

It required instant, not a gradual change. We didn’t have a six month plan to introduce a new virtual communication strategy, we didn’t have a focus group to explore the best ways to work with people with ‘complex needs’ online (not that we believe we work with people who have complex needs, but still you get my drift).

Our accountability became about keeping people alive and Coronavirus free. The three day turnaround to fill an empty flat or room and the discussions on managing arrears faded away. People began to refuse accommodation in shared houses, terrified of becoming infected. People were also struggling to pay service charges as limited funds had to be spent anywhere food was available, usually in more expensive shops.

The things that are making this change easier are:

The passionate people that make up Mayday. We were once described as the ‘Mayday Brand’ but Mayday isn’t a brand – it’s better described as a group of passionate individuals who often have the characteristics of a dysfunctional family, but when the heat is on, everyone comes together to go many, many extra miles. Team before self.

But not just the teams, the people living in Mayday accommodation and working alongside PTS Coaches stepped up, many calling and checking in to see how we are. People living in shared housing explaining how they are getting on better as they have the opportunity to get to know each other and individuals keeping an eye on neighbours and telling us how things are going.

We have a leadership team that ‘got it’. In a few short hours we had named it our ‘Mayday Creative Phase’. We needed to, at speed, get teams to understand it wasn’t business as usual. New rules now applied!

Mayday made the decision that teams needed to limit face to face contact, but at the same time needed to increase the level of contact. The Personal Transitions Service (PTS) is led by the individuals we work with and many chose to contact their Coach through social media, gaming, or by text and phone. By providing people with phones, laptops and top up credit, connecting with people virtually wasn’t the task it could have been.

Our strong relationships with a small number of people in Trusts and Foundations who have known us long enough to know we would be ‘doing the right thing’ not just ‘covering our backsides’, offered some financial support to help us through. I honestly don’t think we would be surviving without their support. While emergency funds pour out money for individual essentials and for organisations that are working at scale, although much needed, equally no one is out there listening to what we really need.

Coronavirus has meant our income is down because we have more empty rooms. Security costs are increasing as teams have to tackle people and property being targeted for cuckooing, at a time when police have limited and stretched resources. Contracts due to start have been suspended, leaving income down and fundraising activities at a standstill.

Even with a lot of support on our side, it still isn’t easy

This is an extract from my daily diary (informal log) and gives a flavour of a day in the life of the Mayday Housing Team (incidents are anonymised to protect the identity of the individuals):

Sexual assault of a disabled woman. Team managing this but obviously distressing. Police involved.

Failed attempts to contact female tenant. Police now in attendance and two arrests made from flat. Two males, likely to be cuckooing, taken away by police due to possession of Class A drugs along with a stolen bike. 

Trying to find accommodation for woman due to give birth. Advice from council to either evict to emergency accommodation or source private rented sector. No estate agents open so answers on a postcard. 

Recent non-related COVID-19 deaths. Team managing reporting requirements, internal investigation and compassionate response to families, who are in pain with not being able to be there. Team facing their own distress in losing people they have connected with. 

Urgent need to re-house people from Travel Lodge. Housing Officer concerned that as Mayday has referrals from those going through their most chaotic time, the stretch on resources may be too much with two team members down and managing a high level of incidents while having to produce more and more reports for commissioners. 

Of course, these are only some of the situations that I am aware of from talking to the team and yes generally Mayday sees a lot of activity as we seldom say no to anyone going through a tough time within a very broken system. But the adjective the team used to describe the current situation is ‘relentless’. One team member took 75 phone calls yesterday, statutory services are on skeleton cover and asking the team to maintain contact when they aren’t around. Charity shops aren’t open so those who could move into their own accommodation are finding it hard to buy the basics to do so. The challenges are endless, the work scary, terrifying, physically and emotionally exhausting, stressful and hard.

As CEO, I can tick all the boxes of how we are providing extra support, online counselling, PPE etc. I could and do tell people to stop working so hard (and I know I’m being ignored), I could pay tribute to the great work going on and I certainly do, but in true Mayday way, with honesty and integrity, I can only say it’s a crap time and we need to work together to somehow get through.

(Here’s to a team of nine Mayday Housing staff currently doing the impossible)