How has the pandemic affected the local voluntary sector? In a three part series, Covid-19 Community Reporter Paris Ali-Pilling interviews Citizens Advice Portsmouth’s Chief Officer, Sandy O’Neill to find out how the pandemic and lockdown has affected the charity, which works with Portsmouth residents on a range of issues by offering advice, advocacy and support. In part three, Sandy explains how the people of Portsmouth came together during the lockdown and how local councillors and MPs can help residents going forward. Read parts one and two here.
[Editor’s note: this interview took place before the introduction of the second lockdown, during which Citizens Advice Portsmouth’s office is closed. Please see the website for up to date details on how to contact the team by telephone and email.]
Paris: Have you been able to access government support through the pandemic? Or funding from other trusts or other grant funders?
Sandy: We had a boost for our Money Advice Service, that’s a fund that goes to our national organisation, then it’s filtered down to the local centres. We also got some amazing funding from the Community Justice Fund, which enabled us to recruit part time housing specialists or part time employment specialists, which is something we’ve really been missing from not having the generous funding from the local authority. That specialist [is] really important for the work we’re going to be doing, especially with all of the unknown legislation around repossessions that’s going to happen after the restrictions have been lifted.
We got some money from Radian Housing to help support the benefits and housing specialist advisors. We’ve got some fuel vouchers from the Energy Redress Scheme for our clients, so that was funding that came to us [and went] directly to clients, which is going to be incredibly helpful. We got some money from the National Lottery Community Fund towards the benefits and housing specialist, just upping the resource that we have to deal with [the demand] we’re expecting to have in the future. We also got some money from VIVID and the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Community Fund to support the resourcing of more advisors. We have worked hard sending in bids, applying for all sorts of things and we’re incredibly lucky and successful with lots of them, which is good.
I know that there are charities that are really suffering, because the work they do just can’t be done remotely. They’re the ones that we really worry about, because those services are so critical. It saddens me that a lot of those will be lost by the time we see any kind of normality again.
What I’ve seen from everyone – organisations, local communities and businesses – they are coming together and saying okay, if this isn’t going to be sorted out on a national level, we need to just do it ourselves.
I have to say, I’ve got [to give] a big shout out to the HIVE Portsmouth. I’m probably a bit biased as vice chair, but the work that the HIVE did in lockdown to support the clinically vulnerable – and the HIVE coordinated with lots of other different agencies – [it was] all incredible. The way the community came together was something Portsmouth should be so proud of because if you look around, I think we did much better than most areas and most communities.
Do you think that being a military city also played a role in that?
There’s something that immediately struck me when I started to work in the city, it’s the way the military history draws the community together, and they’re so proud of it. I fell in love with it so quickly, it’s full of passionate people who are really proud of their history who really want to help each other. I’ve seen that [in] a lot in the work I’ve been doing with Citizens Advice, we’ve asked the community to come in and help with things. I’m incredibly proud to be a part of it; it’s that kind of community feeling Portsmouth [has] that makes people so much more prepared to give and to work to make it better. I call it the power of Portsmouth.
If you could send a message to local councillors and MPs to help them understand how to best support the voluntary sector right now, what would it be?
I have to say, I’ve been part of a lot of meetings with the local authority about how the city can be best supported coming out of COVID and I’ve been blown away by how committed our local councillors and local MPs have been to improving things. I genuinely find it hard to criticise what they’ve done so far, I’ve been really impressed. Moving forward, I think a hard ask for them – [as] I know the challenges they’re facing – [is that] a lot of the help that charities are going [to need] is probably financial.
I think [I’d also say] to support the work of the HIVE, and I say that because ultimately, that will support the smaller charities because what the HIVE are doing is trying to pull resources together to encourage sharing, [such as] the sharing of premises, [and] making sure the funding is going where it’s actually needed for the people in the city.
The biggest piece of advice I can give them [is] they should listen carefully to what the people [need]. Let’s listen to the people in Portsmouth. Let’s find out what support it is that they’re looking for and let’s make sure that we support those charities and provide that support to get the money in and if that means working more collaboratively through somewhere like the HIVE, that’s the best way to go.
I don’t think there’s a charity in a city that wouldn’t happily go if they knew they weren’t needed, but if they’re needed, let’s make sure they survive. It’s about trying to get as much information as [local government] can about what people [are] experiencing. What do they need support with? What’s most needed? And looking at all the charities in Portsmouth, the whole voluntary sector, and say, ‘who does that already? Who does it well? Okay, so let’s channel the resources there’. Let’s encourage what’s already being done well, and is definitely needed and help that grow and thrive. Let’s help them save money by working together. For me, that’s the answer to the future problems.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that we may not have covered?
I think if there is a message going out to our community, then I just like to add my reassurance that we will continue to do everything we can to make sure they get the support that they need. Just to reassure them we’re still here and that we’re doing all we can and if they’re worried about anything, please contact us. It’s not hopeless. I think that’s the most important message.
If you are looking for help in regards to finances, benefits, mental health or other issues, click here to see the services that Citizens Advice Portsmouth deliver.
For more information on the current opening hours for Citizens Advice Portsmouth, see the website or call the Helpline on 023 9400 6600.
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- small businesses and self-employed people
- BAME communities
- people with disabilities
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