The text said: Can someone in the group help me? I’ve only got £3.50 left on my electric meter. You can put it directly on my key fob. Thks Karen.”
As the volunteer co-ordinator for our local mutual aid group I called her back. “How’re you doing?”
“So so,” she says. But to me, Karen sounds worse than last week.
“You know we don’t give cash.”
It’s in our terms of reference, alongside guidance on safeguarding and data security.
“And I’ve mentioned this before but, please, don’t ask Penny for money again. She doesn’t want you to contact her. Penny’s vulnerable herself and she’s feeling hassled. Mutual aid means respecting each other.”
It’s hard to stick to boundaries when you want to help and when you’re desperate.
“I’ve sent you the number for the Council Community Hub, they have benefits advisers, I’ve spoken to them this morning, they’re lovely. They’re trained to help, I’m sorry I’m not.”
Karen’s Employment Support Allowance was suspended because she’d missed an interview the day before the new restrictions came into force, the CAB and benefits office are shut and this week six of no income
“Ok,” she says, “I understand, thanks for all you’ve done so far.”
Thanks to an amazing support network across the town, in our small cell we’ve been sourcing food boxes, organising drop offs, sharing info and been there at the end of the phone. I’ve added to Karen’s box in dog food, deodorant and shower gel, vital stuff but it feels marginal. The electricity problem remains.
Then comes more shocking news, after Karen’s electricity ran out she went to stay with an ex-partner who beat her up badly. The police were called but Karen wouldn’t contact the Refuge or press charges. She’s safe for now, back in her flat but she won’t call the Council either. We expect another call for help.
Ours is not an easily definable community, 100 odd homes in four streets, divided by a main road. There are blocks of flats, sheltered accommodation and bed-sit terraces; homes to a handful of neighbours with complex problems that we try-hard mutual aiders can’t tackle. We’re a helpful temporary sticking plaster, people know we’re there and we’re gathering an important, specific although partial picture of who’s in need.
Yesterday Anne, who’s in her 60’s tried to call me over to her flat.
“I’ve got a problem with my mobile, the NHS are trying to contact me.”
I waved hello, feeling rude but didn’t cross the road because I know she wants me to buy her alcohol. She’s tried this line before. The Council were able to share some basic information to keep members of the group safe and the police are aware of the situation. If I took out some of the violent behaviour, Anne’s could be a story about a member of my own family. I like mutual aid because it’s not just about helping out others in need, it’s about recognising we are all in need at some point or other.
The community response to COVID 19 has been impressive, yet I suspect many people’s experience like mine, makes it crystal clear that we can only do so much. It’s not just universal access services like the bins or schools, that hold society together. We need professionals with appropriate skills and a proper safety net, one that includes the kind of personal support that helps people to access services.
I’ve reflected a lot on what I’m willing and capable of doing, about putting in boundaries, when to stop and take a step back, safe in the knowledge that there are others who are better placed and resourced to step-in. That’s why I’ll always support and value the public sector. I don’t go along with the fear driven, doom and gloom narratives. Our communities are full of hardy, practical and caring people ready to lend a hand. Let’s be honest and realistic about what we all need to live a safe and happy life.