TMH has shared many universal pandemic themes – “fast forwarding the future”, “new normal” and inevitably the “next normal” – but in many ways we were ahead of the curve.
Existing plans to go virtual were dusted off that March and within two weeks we had digitised our content. By April we were piloting with young people.
Those coming to TMH are referred by a range of stakeholders, including homelessness and young adult services within councils, housing associations and outfits such as De Paul and Shelter.
Subscribe to The Big Issue
From just £3 per week
Take a print or digital subscription to The Big Issue and provide a critical lifeline to our work. With each subscription we invest every penny back into supporting the network of sellers across the UK.
A subscription also means you'll never miss the weekly editions of an award-winning publication, with each issue featuring the leading voices on life, culture, politics and social activism.
It took time for all agents to converge but at the start of May we were live on Zoom, accreditations were being awarded and the pathway for young people to access housing was clear again.
The heart of the programme stayed the same – how to live independently and lower the risk of becoming homeless – but Covid had its own manual, one that was constantly being redrafted.
This meant new knowledge on benefits, housing, jobs, entitlements and financial exclusion. Young people were effectively playing a new game and we had to learn then teach them the rules. Unfortunately this meant we had to reduce the employability element of the programme.
However, we had lost the U in our USP. Part of what makes TMH work is it’s a simulated living environment, real flats, not unlike what participants move into, rooted in communities on housing estates.
It allows us to bring key elements to life and participants to feel comfortable. For example, at the start we show them the meters in the utility cupboard and explain energy bills, costs, comparison sites, switching and efficiency. As the week progresses we see how the dial moves and what things like a full-load wash cost. That’s a bit harder on screen!
Some young people have also struggled with a lack of digital literacy, being anxious on camera and having unsuitable spaces to learn. We’ve had to adapt our style to become more interactive to capture our new virtual audience – many of whom already spend a lot of time in front of a device.
Attendance numbers rose and held up. Demand was growing, with a backlog of young people waiting to ‘move on’. This gave us confidence to proceed with the opening of a fourth house, in partnership with Haringey Council, in August. That summer the National Youth Agency designated our work as essential and we soon returned to direct in-person delivery.
It’s been far from plain sailing. The pandemic resulted in a 47 per cent drop in attendance and a third fewer ABC Money Management awards. Tough restrictions were compounded by stakeholder staff and participants isolating and reduced capacity to ensure social distancing.
The Big Wish
Support The Big Issue and our vendors this Christmas
Every time you buy a copy of The Big Issue, subscribe or donate, you are helping our vendors to work their way out of poverty by providing 'a hand up not a hand out.' You’re helping Big Issue vendors achieve their #BigWish
There’s been a new set of challenges since reopening. Some young people are uncomfortable coming on site and we have to do more one-to-ones to get them on the course. There’s been a decline in virtual numbers versus a rise in direct, but there is still demand, so we envision a mixed mode that takes the best elements of virtual into our model, while measuring impact.
The focus now is on the “snap back” – changes to universal credit, the jobs market and evictions, and other issues such as financial abuse. Covid has also accelerated expansion plans, with new 2022 sites coming online in Glasgow and Birmingham.
As I reflect on those times I also remember our funders, the Berkeley and JP Morgan Chase Foundations, Pimco and at the time L&Q, who trusted us to work towards short and long-term solutions, giving us the flexibility to redirect their funding to where it was needed most.
Declan Wilkes is head of communications at MyBnk.