On the Tuesday morning of week four of the shutdown, I’m pacing up and down my daughter’s bedroom on the phone to Sharley. Sharley is manager of the NW5 Play Project in Kentish Town and she’s Camden right the way through to her boots. Sharley is like an artery; she pumps goodness and love through the tower blocks surrounding the playground that is home to her project. After a tragic fatal stabbing in Kentish Town in 2018, it was Sharley and her project who opened their doors for the community in the hours that followed, to give sanctuary for the grief, anger and shock that had no place to go. I genuinely adore this woman.
Sharley and I are talking about how families are doing during the shutdown. Sharley had been out delivering activity packs for the children on the neighbouring estate. She tells me how much the parents wanted to talk (from a distance), how the lack of Wi-Fi in the blocks was a major cause of frustration. Sharley never tells me personal details and I would never ask for them. But 10 minutes with her on the phone and I’ve got a clear idea what help families would generally find more useful right now.
A few days later, I had a Twitter conversation with Camden Mobile Foodbank, an incredible organisation who got off the ground at lightening pace to help get emergency food to Camden residents during the shutdown. They used the phrase ‘someone to watch over me’. That stuck.
Our focus on community in Camden family early help is to try and make sure families have someone to watch over them, not when (or indeed because) professionals feel worried, but someone to be there in the good times and someone to turn to in the dark and difficult moments, letting them know the world is ok. Professionals in public services are privileged to come into a family’s life, but for the briefest of times. We are joining a family’s support network (which often includes a community group or organisation) as extra temporary scaffolding, not to dismantle, re-assemble or, worse yet, ignore what is already there. And where that network doesn’t exist or doesn’t feel strong, part of the job must be to help connect a family with people like Sharley.
Because they are the constant-be’s. The people who know all the mums, dads and carers who live near you, who are part of the WhatsApp groups on your street, who know which chemist is open late within a half mile walk when your baby has a temperature, who will open their doors to you without question in the middle of the night when a loved one has been tragically taken from you.
As a state-delivered service, getting alongside community has helped us to give better help to our families over the years and, importantly, to locate the role we play within that community context. Being able to pick up the phone during COVID to our friends in local Camden community organisations has meant rapid, local support for our families needing help or supplies. The state does not have all of the answers all of the time; the local community has given the solution to a problem during COVID more times than I can count.
When one of our families couldn’t wash their clothes or sheets because the laundrette was closed, a local resident did their weekly wash. When a family who was shielding had a poorly dog and couldn’t get to a vet, a local couple responded to our shout out for help on the Camden mutual aid Facebook page, and took the dog to the nearest free pet hospital 5 miles away (the dog is now home and much better). When a family were self-isolating and needed an urgent prescription from the local pharmacy, one call to the nearest community centre and a volunteer was on their bike to collect it. I could go on.
This isn’t exclusive to this extraordinary crisis-driven period either. In the ordinary times (whatever they are), when we come to the end of our time with a family – whether the newly arrived family, or the family who have fled domestic violence and come to Camden with no support network, or the family who have felt alone or overwhelmed – to know they are connected with a community organisation who will love them like we loved them is important. It’s our job not just to be connected with the community, but to understand ourselves as a part of it, making a contribution to it in the good times and in the dark and difficult moments too.
One of my abiding memories of this crisis will be ringing Sarah at Kentish Town Community Centre to ask her if she’d like easter eggs for her foodbank, packing up a van with 100 eggs and three hours later seeing photos of Brecknock and Torriano primary schools putting them in happiness hampers to distribute to their families, many of them on low incomes or in food poverty due to COVID. A number of them are families we work with. Community collaboration and cooperation is everywhere. It helps keep people safe and well. Our role running a state-provided family service – of any type – is to lend our hands and hearts to that constant collective effort, not the other way around.
That way everyone has someone, like a Sharley, to watch over them. Not just during a pandemic. All the time.
Becca Dove, family worker and Head of Service for Family Early Help for London Borough of Camden