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    I'm in awe of the frontline staff in the organisation for their dedication and their compassion and empathy towards the position that our clients find themselves in. Richard Edwards, Huggard

Planning, partnership and people power: the Huggard's response to the pandemic

In a series of features about the work of members since COVID-19, Gwyn speaks to Richard Edwards, Chief Executive of Cardiff-based homelessness charity, Huggard, about how the organisation has responded to the pandemic.
Image caption: volunteer Basil working in the day centre garden

As chief executive of Huggard, Richard is responsible for a unique service in Wales. Their flagship service is the Huggard Day Centre, a multidisciplinary intervention centre in Cardiff, which opens its doors to around 1200 people in need of emergency shelter each year. There’s a hostel attached, too, and ten houses for Huggard service users around the city.

I ask him what it was like for Huggard staff when, during March, everything suddenly became very real and very different, as the pandemic changed life forever.

“Well, we went into emergency planning mode very, very quickly,” he says. “One of the first things we did was to reduce the numbers of people that could access our day centre. The Day Centre went from working with 80-90 people a day, down to about 25, at most. In addition, so-called ‘floor space’ had to be taken out of use, due to social distancing measures to prevent infection, so only pods and self-contained bedrooms were kept open.”

The centre normally operates an open-door policy for people experiencing homelessness, in frontline hostel accommodation, or vulnerably housed. With the capacity so limited, this policy was altered temporarily, the centre only remaining open to those living on the streets or in emergency accommodation without access to daytime shelter or support.

New hygiene measures were required, too, of course. Two additional full-time cleaning roles were created, spending every day cleaning, disinfecting and sterilising the centre. Hand sanitizer dispensers were installed at every entrance and exit from the building, with everybody trained and instructed in their proper use. There were temperature checks for everybody entering the building.

“We know for sure that staff have access to the full range of PPE and know how to use that effectively,” Richard says with relief. There was an urgent need to protect Huggard service users – rough sleepers who would be very vulnerable to catching and suffering from the virus due to their health and lifestyles.

“My fear was, right back at the beginning, that we were going to see swathes of homeless people dying as a result of the pandemic,” says Richard, gravely. “Our client group have quite serious underlying health issues, and also, to be honest, because of the complexities of their lives, they’re not going to be very good at social distancing and taking the precautions they need to.”

Thankfully though, hard work, successful planning and, Richard admits, a dose of good luck, has meant that none of the Huggard staff or service users have been diagnosed with COVID–19 at the time of the interview in June – an amazing accomplishment considering the risks.

It’s working together that has deflected most of the danger to people’s lives so far, he says. Huggard played an important role in supporting Cardiff Council’s plan to move around 130 people who were sleeping rough or living in emergency accommodation into two newly-requisitioned hotels.

“The work that the partnerships across Cardiff, and across Wales, has done, has really minimised the impact [of COVID-19] and that's been real testimony to the work that everybody's putting in. Not just Huggard, but all the partner agencies working together.”

Most of all, though, it’s “proactive and dedicated” Huggard staff team to whom Richard gives thanks. Unlike some in the ‘Covid economy’, many support workers need to be there for people living on the streets or in emergency accommodation. For them, it’s impossible to work from home. The staff are key workers doing unpredictable, interpersonal work with people.

 “I can't praise our staff team enough,” says Richard; “I'm in awe of the frontline staff in the organisation for their dedication and their compassion and empathy towards the position that our clients find themselves in… virtually everybody in the organisation has stepped up and said ‘no, what could we do to make this better for our client group?’”

Many team members’ job descriptions have changed dramatically. People living in Cardiff’s newly opened ‘homeless hotels’ were lacking access to the support services they required, like help with benefits and documentation, and harm reduction services for people using drugs and coping with addiction. Staff began to visit people living in the hotels to provide this support

“Within a couple of weeks, we'd already referred 30 people into Buvidal treatment,” says Richard, "which makes a huge difference to them as individuals, and for some of those it’s been a real step forward in terms of, you know, looking at a much brighter future.” The heroin replacement treatment buprenorphine (one type of which is called Buvidal) is administered intravenously just once per month. Staff also referred people to the rapid access prescribing service.

The service user development team put together creative and therapeutic activity packs, to help people find positive and engaging things to do with their time, as well as holding social video meetings and having virtual music sessions.  The day centre kitchen staff have been preparing meals take out to the hostels, so that people find it easier stay in self-isolation.

Richard notes an unexpected effect result of the lockdown is that some relationships between hostel residents and keyworkers have become stronger: “They've actually got more involved in the community within their own hostel.” Gaining ground during this time is vital, he says.

“It’s fantastic to see a commitment to not turning our back on the lessons that we've learned during this time, and the progress that a lot of our clients have made,” Richard says. “Because for some people, who’ve been in a revolving door of homelessness, this is the first time in a long time they've actually been able to take up accommodation.”

Huggard’s advocacy team has gone out to the hotels, helping people arrange their benefits and set up bank accounts, so that they aren’t trapped into begging as their only source of income, says Richard.

“As soon as the city centre opens up again, the temptation for people who have spent a long time engaged in street culture activities is that they are going to be drawn back onto the streets,” says Richard. “Now's the opportunity to actually look at building resilience.”

He’s talking about the “symbiotic relationship” between substance misuse, homelessness and street-based forms of generating income, through begging or sex work.

“That relationship needs to be understood. It's about getting the right help at the right time to meet the needs of the individual. And it's not one size fits all, but it is a complex relationship.” I can sense the determination in Richard’s voice.

“The city centre’s shut down, so the drivers are different for people at the moment. During that window of opportunity, people have seen opportunities that they’ve seized with both hands and that commitment now, not to waste those opportunities or to let them fall apart, is really, really important.”


Do you have a Covid story to share about our sector? Contact Gwyn

Recently, staff and people using Huggard services have been doing a lot of gardening and cooking - follow them on Twitter to see the wonderful photos.   

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© Cymorth Cymru 2020
Company Registration No: 5093332
Charity No: 1116774