How Manchester homelessness charity Mustard Tree continues to adapt its model in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Words: Jack Barton (read the Medium version).
It’s 7:45am and the dusting of last night’s frost covers the entrance to Mustard Tree’s Ancoats hub. The yellow shutters — which have become a popular backdrop for Instagram fashion shoots — will be pushed aside in a couple of hours time to welcome people in crisis, in need of food and/or emergency furniture.
Combatting Poverty — Preventing Homelessness
2020 was an unsettling time for the Manchester-based charity, which ordinarily provides employment training, vocational courses and confidence-building creative programmes. Much of this activity is conducted on-site across three hubs in Manchester and Salford, but the Covid-19 pandemic has forced continuous disruptions to its model, based on the ever-changing needs of its clients.
“We thought we’d be in ‘crisis-mode’ for a few months, before fully reopening for courses and classes, but it’s been a much longer struggle”, mentions Harry, Mustard Tree’s activities and volunteering coordinator. “We’re now about to restart food distribution until the end of March — we didn’t think we’d be back in this position”.
Mustard Tree quickly adapted its model to focus on food distribution, furniture and accommodation advocacy when the country first went into lockdown in 2020. Their stance was to ‘remain open as long as the supermarkets were’ (the Community Shops in Ancoats and Eccles offer access to low cost food and emergency food parcels through the Food Club, as well as crisis clothing and household essentials such as furniture and white goods).
Many also benefit from the ‘Freedom Project’, but plans to relaunch the flagship life-skills and employability training programme were recently put on hold when the latest national lockdown was announced in January.
“It’s frustrating because all we want to do is get back to what we do best — helping people learn new skills and find work. But we also acknowledge that there’s an underlying need for critical support at the moment; people sleeping on floors in unfurnished properties, families in temporary accommodation who can’t cook for their kids due to a lack of basic appliances. These are examples of what people are asking for our support with at the moment, and it’s happening right on our doorstep”, says Services Manager Fiona.
Debbie, a member of the support team, has noticed the change of clientele, complexity of need and even the psychological condition of people visiting the Ancoats hub.
“There’s more people in severe distress, whose mental state has clearly deteriorated after not being able to access their usual drop-in support services because of Covid restrictions. We’ve had people register for our Food Club who never would have thought they’d be in this situation a few months ago”.
Addressing these basic needs is tantamount to the ‘move-on’ process. The majority of the people Mustard Tree are seeing has shifted to those still seeking to achieve their physiological needs (food, shelter, warmth and sleep). When these needs are not met, more social stabilising support such as employment and training becomes less attainable.
“The saving grace is that with the vaccine roll-out, we at least know that this period will eventually come to an end — so we can start getting people back on site to help build their self-efficacy and confidence”.
Covid-19: hitting those who have the least — the hardest
According to Greater Manchester Poverty Action, there are 157,000 fuel poor households in Greater Manchester. Low income households also face disadvantages in the marketplace for everyday goods and services, often paying over the odds (known as the poverty premium).
“We’ve always known that the odds are stacked against those who have the least in society, but this pandemic has uncovered the true scale of inequality in Greater Manchester” — says Jo, Mustard Tree CEO. “Thousands of individuals and families who were barely managing to keep their head above water have been hit by a year-long tsunami, and we’re only going to start seeing the effects of this over the upcoming months”.
With the consequences of the pandemic threatening thousands of livelihoods, there’s expected to be an exponential rise in demand for Mustard Tree’s services over the next few months.
“2021 should see the end of the health crisis, but it’s also when we expect to see the intense economic hardship begin”, says Jo. “The end of furlough, the end to the moratorium on evictions, people in hotels and hostels living in constant limbo. All this, coupled with the thousands of people being made redundant. We’re even paying people’s rent arrears for the first time ever — just to keep them from being forced to leave their homes” (there are reports of illegal evictions still taking place despite the ongoing moratorium).
“Sometimes the task can feel really daunting, but we have to remember that we’re a small team of staff and volunteers and can only do our bit, which at the moment means trying to reach as many people as possible, and celebrate each success — no matter how big or small”.
“Thank you for changing my life — I’m so happy”
“I received the above text message last week”, says Freedom Project Coordinator Ellie. “It was from one of our long-term Freedom trainees, who had been living in a hostel for over two years. She was desperate to move on, but had received no support as she didn’t have a ‘local connection’. I initially helped her with ‘Salford Home Search’ and completing all of the additional forms relating to her disability (they were so oversubscribed for housing, they would only accept people with a medical need)”.
Being unable to offer on-site vocational training has not stopped Mustard Tree from helping its clients and Freedom Project trainees. The charity gives away over half of the furniture donations it receives to people who have previously been homeless and just acquired a new tenancy. This essential service has been available throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Working with Mustard Tree, she secured a flat with ForHousing, which meant she got a £150 furniture voucher to spend with us. They also applied for money to pay her first week’s rent, so she wasn’t in immediate arrears”.
Mustard Tree provided free furniture for new tenancies for nearly 100 people between July — August 2020 alone.
“I applied for a washing machine and a cooker through Salford Assist, and once I had completed medical forms this was approved. We then gave her a fridge/freezer through our ‘hardship fund’, as this was the only item of furniture missing before she felt comfortable to move in. She sent me a text saying ‘thank you for changing my life — I’m so happy’”.
The ability for Mustard Tree to offer furniture discounts between 25% and 100% helps combat the poverty premium. This is particularly apparent when it comes to white goods, which carries one of the highest inequality disparities (the average cost across multiple white good appliances is £233.50, whereas for a family on low income it is £451.75 — a difference of £218.25).
Helping Mustard Tree to help others
The intrinsic link between food poverty and child poverty is all too apparent, and has been exacerbated by the pandemic. At the height of the 2020 lockdown, the number of people Mustard Tree supported with access to food grew from 500 a month to 1000 a week.
Manchester had the highest child poverty rate in Greater Manchester in both 2014/15 and 2018/19 and saw the second highest increase over this period (7%) – GM Poverty Action.
This prompted the charity to focus its winter ‘ask’ around non-perishable food, with companies and communities rallying around the ‘Fill a Crate for Christmas’ campaign, as well as setting up monthly donations.
“The response we’ve received from our individual, corporate and community supporters has been astonishing, given the hardship many of them must be facing themselves”, says Jack, Communications Manager for Mustard Tree.
The extra resources have enabled the charity to restart its Food Club delivery service, with the aim to reach those who cannot visit their hubs due to national lockdown — particularly families in temporary accommodation.
“Each time we’ve been found wanting, people have come to our aid. We’ve had elderly couples donating their winter fuel allowance to us, schools putting together huge food collections (even though we have heard many of the pupils’ parents had recently been made redundant)”.
“Companies have donated office desks to help make our staff areas Covid-Secure, brand-new microwaves for people without any cooking facilities, and even dog food for the pets of those still sleeping on the streets”.
Where on-site volunteering and physical events haven’t been possible, people took to JustGiving to support Mustard Tree through its crisis fund, setting up their own fundraising initiatives to help raise money for the charity.
“It’s been quite overwhelming and makes you think that with this level of support behind us — we might just have a chance”.
Mustard Tree remains open for its Food Club service, emergency housing vouchers and drop-in crisis support. If you’re a family or know a family in temporary accommodation and on low/no income, please click here to access the Food Club delivery service (available until end of March 2021, or call 0161 228 7331).