Across Victoria, Friday October 23rd is Thank You Day — an opportunity to say thanks to Victorian workers for all their hard work and sacrifices during the pandemic.
Community workers on the COVID frontline
By Miriam Sved.
When Andrew Carman found out his North Melbourne public housing unit block was in ‘hard lockdown’, he immediately made contact with the community service organisation based in his building.
He had a hazy idea of what was going on, and the community organisation was an obvious port of call because it was there, and because Andrew trusted the staff.
It’s a common impulse; the close ties community organisations have with the people they serve mean they’re well placed in times of crisis.
Kim McAlister, from the Brotherhood of St Laurence, puts it this way: “When there are crises and people are scared, community service organisations have a really important role in terms of facilitation and community engagement.”
“And we’re talking true community engagement, where people are actively involved in finding solutions, not just being given information.”
Michael Graham, the CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, sees it in similar terms.
“[Our service] is a second home to many people and a gathering place, and we often talk about just walking in the door is when the healing starts.”
When COVID struck, community organisations had a lot of new people ‘walking in their doors’.
There was an influx of inquiries for help, offers of assistance and even cold calls from people wanting to volunteer.
With lockdowns and social distancing, these organisations were forced to find new ways of operating and delivering services. Virtual appointments and ‘telehealth’ calls became more common.
Mel Thomson, who works in alcohol and other drugs outreach at TaskForce, says the pivot to online was a mixed bag.
“For some of our more complex clients who we’d normally service in an outreach perspective, particularly young people, to not have our Hub to drop into, and for our youth workers not to be able to service our clients in the way they would normally, that’s been a massive challenge,” she says.
“Conversely, there’s been a number of clients that have really benefited from telehealth services. More episodes of care during this space and a number of people saying, ‘I don’t have to get on two trains and a bus to come and have a session, I can [just] open up my computer’.”
The need to adapt
The pandemic prompted some organisations to adapt existing programs to maintain connection and support, and get involved in new programs that engage and empower communities.
For instance, through the Working for Victoria scheme, the Brotherhood of St Laurence has recruited a group of new workers who are not, as Kim McAlister puts it, the “usual suspects”.
“They’re from industries that have shed staff. So we now have a team of ‘community mobilisers’ that are of the community. This is really helping us to step up in a whole bunch of areas, including strengthening digital practice, which is helping people who are stuck at home.”
Other organisations, such as Neighbourhood Houses, are also working with their communities in ways that acknowledge the complexity of human needs at this time.
Neighbourhood Houses sometimes get a ‘soft’ rap: as Tracie Lund, Manager of Morwell Neighbourhood House puts it.
“There’s a perception that we’re just sitting around knitting or something, that we’re not frontline responders, and we absolutely are.”
As a frontline responder to the needs of its Gippsland community, Morwell Neighbourhood House has prepared and distributed hundreds of food parcels and made over a thousand welfare checks. This small organisation also mobilised dozens of volunteers to sew and distribute almost 2,500 face masks to other organisations and the general community.
Working with people who have experienced a lot of recent trauma – from the Hazelwood mine fire to the 2019/20 bushfires – the organisation also recognised that community needs go beyond food, shelter and basic welfare.
“Through the different disasters and adversities we’ve faced in this community, a response we’ve had is that it’s really important to understand where our community’s at, how they’re feeling, and to give a space where people can offer messages of support.”
“We really need to have an opportunity for people to explore creatively where they’re at and find different ways to connect.”
To this end the Neighbourhood House is taking part in the ‘#frontdoorstepproject’, a global movement to collect images of people holding messages at their front door or porch.
“We ended up with some beautiful messages and reflections about our community. Some around being kind, being brave, being thankful. Some talking about their resilience. Others just saying, you know, everything’s going to be okay.”
These messages from and to the community will be displayed in the LaTrobe Regional Gallery – a way to bring people (safely) together as they emerge from lockdown.
For some organisations, the particular cohorts they work with make it harder to provide supports during the pandemic, and they’ve had to adapt their programs in creative ways.
Lively, for instance, is a community organisation that employs young people to offer support and connection for older Victorians. Recognising the need to pull back from in-person work, Lively’s staff and CEO Anna Donaldson were nevertheless determined not to leave people without supports or employment.
The organisation quickly developed a program called ‘Safe and Connected’, offering a combination of technological support, remote help, welfare check-ins and practical supports.
Anna says, “Sometimes it’s getting helpers to run errands for older people, do grocery pick-up, help if they need someone to take the dog out. Sometimes people just need someone to come and take the bins out.”
While continuing, where necessary, to deliver in-person home care with appropriate safety precautions, they also partnered with an organisation that offers smart home monitoring, to help pick up anomalies that might suggest injury or illness in older people who are home alone without family to check on them.
They’re also exploring some unconventional initiatives that could only have come about through these strange times.
“One of our helpers who’s a musician had lost his work in the entertainment industry. He’s really passionate about performing and bringing music to people, so he started offering some of our older members personal Zoom concerts – little online music performances.”
“He’s had such a great response that he’s shaped it into his own mini-initiative within Lively – ‘VIGS’ (Virtual Gigs’) – and we’re supporting him to apply for some extra funding to roll it out more.”
Lively has been able to employ about a dozen extra young people at this time, all of whom had lost work in other industries: demonstrating the principal that community services is the sector that can drive Victoria’s jobs recovery.
The road ahead
The constant challenge, of course, is funding. Across the community services industry, organisations are reporting more and more new clients, and a greater complexity of need. Many are already working at full capacity, with little wiggle room for growth once restrictions lift and face-to-face services resume.
The first and second waves of the pandemic changed the way people sought help. People literally stayed at home and bunkered down. Services are very concerned that pre-existing clients and new clients will be in a worse place when they eventually reengage with services. This will require more work, and more intensive support, from case workers. Commonwealth supports, which have masked the true extent of community need, will also phase out around this time.
All this against a backdrop of low indexation rates and only insecure, short-term funding extensions.
For many organisations, the net result is simple: they will struggle just to stay open.
It’s a point recently acknowledged by Victoria’s Minister for Disability, Ageing, Carers and Child Protection, Luke Donnellan.
“Let’s be blunt, you can’t plan for an organisation if you’ve only got six to 12 months funding.”
“So, it is something that I’m pushing.”
With a new appreciation for the role community sector organisations play in (and outside) times of crisis, the challenge going forward will be to match this recognition with fair and predictable funding.
Victoria’s post-COVID recovery might just depend on it.