In conversation with...

Lucy Clark, Resources Co-ordinator for Brushstrokes Community Project.

Just before Christmas last year, Lucy Clark, Resources Co-ordinator for Brushstrokes Community Project had a conversation with James Lynch about some of the challenges organisations, like Brushstrokes, have faced over the last 12/18 months and what new challenges are on the horizon for 2022.

Brushstrokes Community Project TAG

What is the area that Brushstrokes works in. Is it exclusively Sandwell or do you go beyond that?

“Predominantly Sandwell, as within walking distance for lots of people. However, I think they say Smethwick, Sandwell, West Birmingham and beyond. So I think with the pandemic and with the lockdown, lots of other agencies, advisors and volunteers were working online. Our benefits advisor was taking calls around the country; likewise immigration advisors and early asylum helpers also as they've had calls from abroad. It's become much wider, but I would say face to face the higher number of our users are Sandwell based, yes.”

What have been the biggest challenges of 2021 with all that has been happening?

“Across the service, the biggest challenge has been the increase in need. We just have become so busy, based in an office for 2 years – moved there as outgrown smaller one. Now had to take on extra space as the project has grown, the areas we work in have changed also; there is more support for people post decision, post settlement or post leave to remain to try and get them involved in community. We have more staff, more areas of service delivery; probably biggest problem faced is seeing people in good length of time – we try and make an appointment with new clients within 48 hours (they won’t have been seen within 48 hours, but someone will have called them, triaged their risk and will make an appointment asap). The demand is high.

My area, with resources, it’s definitely about the volume of food that we are bringing in and how quickly that goes. Pre pandemic, all of our food that we had for a for food distribution sessions was all donated. It came from schools and Harvest Festival donations would probably last six months, definitely through the winter. Now we have to buy things every week so it's being able to tap into those funding pockets to be able to know what can be put towards food. Unrestricted funds can be put to where the need is and that is usually food.

It's been a big problem, and because our numbers for food distribution probably tripled during the pandemic, and although we lost some of those people when we stopped doing deliveries and when people have moved out the area, they stayed at least double, at least 200% of what we had before so. It’s trying to meet those needs of those people.”

Is that increase in demand down to sheer numbers of people being referred to you?

“Absolutely. I think where we are in the High Street, we’re very prominent. So lots of people see us and the users that come here, they told us that. The best recommendation they can give about us is that they tell people about us. People can be self-referred, they'll be referred by friends or family or all the local bodies also refer, we get lots of referrals from migrant help, from the refugee and migrant centre, Sandwell council and obviously our details are all put up in all of the Asylum accommodation.”

What would you say have been the highlights for you in the last year?

“Oh, definitely the teamwork and how services joined together. Sandwell is pretty good at linking different groups together. The Council itself provided a lot of help and within our project, within Brushstrokes, we realised we were able to act on the need for a lot more cross department working. So rather than people just coming for food or people just coming for advice, we work together; we see if we can meet the whole needs of the client as they are there.

We found, certainly through 2020, there are lots of people that came for food, many were EU citizens. Brexit has had a big impact on our service user base. People who had lost jobs, people who hadn't applied for their status, people who suddenly found themselves without benefits. Those were not necessarily all of them, but they were more fixable problems, because it was delayed paperwork, or it was helping somebody to organise that themselves to get their status instated.

As the years go by, the focal point of our service changes and as much as we've always been there as an asylum seeker and refugee centre, we now got a much bigger EU client base as well. People have got their status because, as I say, we've got new employment support, community liaison and family support work as well.

We managed to recruit and have sustained new volunteers because some volunteers had to self-isolate and shield because they were vulnerable, or they were living with people who were vulnerable. We work with the SCVO. They sent quite a few recommendations of people who were on furlough and wanted to be volunteer somewhere. So we made contacts with those people and again, just appealing on Facebook and putting out it out there; reaching out to the to the local community.

I think we took on 10 new volunteers just to drive, to do deliveries. And we've still got some of those now working either in that capacity, or they've moved across to help with welfare calls and somebody else's volunteering with the ESOL department now. So once they've joined the service, we have retained probably 40% of the people that came to us as volunteers, so that's been a real strength as well. Part of my role is to do the appeals on the Facebook page. That's really what we use it for is appeals, sharing a bit of information and Thank- You’s. The growth of the page and the support base is very encouraging, and it shows how Sandwell is special in that way, because as much as there’s many people in Sandwell who are in a really hard position themselves and facing a lot of difficulty, whether financially or work wise, there are still lots of people who want to help and the feeling is there to support people.

We set up a Just Giving page at the beginning of the year but that has drawn to a close now. We also set up the Afghan appeal JustGiving page, but we had lots of people ask how do we make donations and we've never really got an answer for that at the moment. So sometimes people just send in a cheque through the post or drop some cash in, but that is practical.”

Are there patterns of people coming to Brushstrokes, being helped out then coming back to volunteer? Do you have those kinds of stories?

“Yes, in fact we try actually have quite a few of our service users who are still in the process, who are volunteering, mainly in the resources area, because it's something they can just muck in and help out with. It's a difficult process because Father Hudson's do ask for two references for any volunteers as well and so the people who are new in the country, or who haven't got that base or haven't had somebody be an official referee for them, then they fall over at the first hurdle.

But at the moment, we have got three volunteers who help with food, who were all still in the asylum process, two male and a female, who just want to give back to that and a couple who helped with the cafe as well.”

Are you seeing the same clients each month? I'm interested in their journey and if people feel they want to help after being helped.

“I'm quite interested in that in terms of food bank. We are a referral centre for food banks. So, we can give three vouchers and we tend to only do that for people who UK residents because, again, going back to the holistic service, if it's a migrant who hasn’t got status or money or a visa, we'd rather put things in place to support them from needing to go to a food bank at all.

I do wonder as I am in contact with Janine at the Food Bank and I'm up there every couple of months or so and I always see the same faces and I think those people are getting those food bank vouchers from somewhere; where does that information feedback to, to get help for these people? I know there's always some people who take advantage of things that are available, but that's a tiny minority as opposed to the general in need people who were there.

People can come for food for as long as they need to, while they’re in the asylum process and until their Universal Credit, should they be successful, comes through. What we offer to people who come for food has increased, because we're buying it, because I think there's certain standards of what we should give, but again, we have fridge items weekly, but not a huge amount of them, but we don't have meat and things like that, which is obviously what people would really need. So, as much as what we give is improved, it is still pasta, rice, and tins. I have thought many times, what is it that people keep coming back for? There's only so many packets of pasta you can eat.

Feedback we have received, people come, they know they're going to be welcomed. They know that somebody is going to ask them how they are. It's part of their routine. When they've got nothing else to do, Thursday morning at 12:00 o'clock, they know that they go to Brushstrokes and pick up their parcel and somebody will smile and somebody will say, how are you? And that’s it. I really pride myself and I take pride from my team that they deliver the same message; that it is a welcome, it's a dignity return, and the people should feel that they are part of our community and not that they're coming just for handouts.”

Rhythm in life is important for people who have had chaotic existences however how do youmanage to build in that regularity without creating a dependency model? Are you thinking of becoming a pantry?

“We have noticed over the last few months that some of our clients had become a bit more fussy; we give them their food and they return things. But instead of looking at it as a negative, that they're being fussy, we should be thinking more that they were only taking what they actually need and we’re not creating a dependency; we’re just providing the additional things that they're in need of.

So, in terms of a Pantry, I met with Amy a few months ago as it was something that Sandwell Council were asking us to do. I think Heather is keen for us to have a Pantry here. However, we don't know how we would manage having a Pantry here in terms of space. For one, we don't have the space where we could set it up and leave like fridges and everything out.

And two, we have to differentiate between which clients, because we couldn't do it for everybody; some of our clients have no money at all then they are not entitled to anything. So that would lead to questions around, do we do pantry on a Tuesday and foodbank on Thursdays, how do we tell people who come to Foodbank that they can afford £4 per week so they have to go and use the pantry, the logistics of setting this all up is something that we haven’t worked out at the moment.

And manpower. My job has gone from 24 hours to 37 hours so I cannot do more so; how would we do the shopping for pantry etc. We didn’t get past the initial stage unfortunately. I have pages and pages of notes that I had made and questions that I wanted to ask but we haven’t had a chance to look at it.

I think that the families we support that are receiving £39 per week, per member of family, have 5-6 people in family, they can afford to make a contribution to what they take home. But for single people, I would find it difficult to ask for a contribution to something similar to what they would get for free if they came in on a different day.”

Looking ahead to 2022, what would you say are your biggest needs and concerns going forward?

“I think one of the things we are very concerned about in the area is the lack of housing in terms of we are now supporting 3 hotels, 1 of Afghan resettlement and 2 are new hotels for asylum seekers. We know that a lot of our clients are in emergency accommodation, whether that be because of Domestic Violence, lack of settled status, lack of income, or loosing homes because they can’t pay rent. It could be Asylum seekers that have been granted status, so they have to move out of the asylum seeker accommodation and there are no homes for them to move to. Personally, for me, that is something I find upsetting for people. Some people have dreamed of a better life for 5/6/7 years but then they find themselves in a worse position once they have been granted status. I think housing is a big issue. Generally, being able to keep on top of the demand for clothing and food resources. We have this room I am sat in now, full of clothing but because we have supported 12 men at a hotel last week, we are now out of men’s clothing. Anyone else that comes, we only have a few bits left. Its demand, its man hours, it is maintaining the service we can provide. We want to make sure that are standards don’t drop and we keep providing a service that is at this level. Funding is also a need always.”

So it's important to keep asking the question of what donations are needed? What else can we ask?

"Are there are any other local groups? Men’s groups, and I apologise for anything that I say that is deemed as sexist or gender stereotypical, but Men in my life tend to have less items of clothing and shoes and by the time they can be donated, they are not really in a state that others can use them again. Also, men’s group, they are very masculine and whether they are based on sport, or another area, if men are captured in something and can take that back to their communities and share it that way, that is really good. We find it really hard to get hold of men’s things, so we try and do a toiletry pack every 4-6 weeks due to the cost of providing it. It’s easy to buy gender neutral shower gels etc but we are always in need of men’s footwear, that isn’t falling apart. If that is something that could go through the ministries to the men in the parishes that would be brilliant.”

How can we get the messages back and the stories out there to increase interest and support?

“We have had a lot of discussions across all the Father Hudson’s projects as part of the Communications plan, one of the things we appreciate is how much of an emotive effect stories have and can lead to more support; however it’s trying not to make out that everyone is a sob story and do it in a way that shows the positive in a situation and not showing it to be all sad. I know some other Facebook groups pull at heart strings and, although that has its place, that is not always the way that we want to go. One of the most difficult things we have faced over the last few months, we have had an influx of donations, but people only want these donations to go to Afghans. I find this upsetting as its like saying to 2 homeless people in the street that they are only prepared to help one person and not the other. I have had a personal struggle with that. If you can’t guarantee that a package of donations is going to a Afghan refugee then some people will not want to donate and that is how the media has, unfortunately, made ‘good refugees and bad refugees’ and it is upsetting.”

How can churches and other Sandwell social groups, get involved in helping Brushstrokes and other organisations that work in this area; what is the best way that they can help?

“The best way is to raise awareness and that is the message I take when I go into schools. It’s not just about the organisations but to be mindful of the need in our area and what we try to do. We formed a relationship with St Matthew’s {school} this year and we are trying to work with them through the whole academic year. I have been in school several times and they have taken donations and I am going back in January just to say hello. But what we are finding is that a lot of people only find Brushstrokes when they are in crisis and it’s an emergency. We want people to be aware that these organisations are there and it doesn’t have to get to the urgent point and that questions and issues can be dealt with to stop the end point of crisis. Its about spreading the word.

Also, it’s always donations and if people can keep eyes out on social media; Brushstrokes only has Facebook but if you are interested, and you see something that grabs your attention then that’s great. And if you have got time. It doesn’t have to be 2 or 3 days a week, it could be an hour or so every other week – if you can commit to something in a volunteering capacity - whether it being sweeping the leaves (we currently have someone volunteering that saw that this was an area that needed doing and so volunteered to do that for us!) It doesn’t matter what it is that you do, if you can commit to give a certain amount of time, then that’s useful for any organisation”.

A big "Thank You" for your time, Lucy.

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