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Ben Phillips-Farmer

Ben Phillips-Farmer is Support Worker at Elmbridge Rentstart

Adapting to a crisis: how we’re supporting our clients during Covid-19

Ben Phillips-Farmer is Support Worker at Elmbridge Rentstart, Commonweal’s delivery partner in the Freedom2Work Project.


At Elmbridge Rentstart we’ve always tried to be very fluid in the way we work. We know that due to a constantly changing local, national and global environment, the conditions in which people find themselves homeless, or vulnerable to homelessness, shift; and the goalposts for successfully navigating it move.

But even the most flexible of us weren’t ready for the ginormous impact of a global pandemic. However, true to our nature, we have been determined to attempt to alleviate some of the new adverse ramifications for those we work with.

First, those we’ve housed, because we know the story doesn’t end with housing someone. Isolation, used in some contexts as a severe form of punishment, suddenly became the most effective way to keep people safe. This has serious implications for anybody’s mental health, especially our client base of whom 45% had pre-existing struggles with mental health.

We responded swiftly with a higher regularity of welfare calls and mass communications, such as chatbots, designed to identify those struggling, vulnerable, or whom we might not have reached with a phone call. We introduced ‘boredom buster’ packs, which we’re really happy to have delivered 23 of now, with the help of some very generous local people and their piles of donations.

We’ve also just launched a befriender scheme so that we can continue to provide an increased amount of listening, company and conversation alongside the support work we do.

Financial difficulties are another big factor that has already affected many of our clients by the time they get to us. Again, an area set to be even more complicated and challenging in a pandemic world.

We have been communicating from the earliest stages that our clients need to prioritise paying their rent. This can be difficult when you struggle to afford something that we all need: food.

So, in partnership with the wonderful local foodbank, we started contact free food parcel deliveries. The number of people accessing support from the foodbank has risen, and we’ve delivered over 45 boxes of food since we went into lockdown. On top of this, we’ve had yet more incredible local support, we’ve been able to deliver over 200 freshly cooked individually portioned meals.

The world of outreach work has also changed. Our first big achievement was a joint effort with other local organisations and the council to get people off the streets at the beginning of lockdown. We managed to house four people in the private rented sector that weekend as well as working with the council to find additional rough sleepers temporary accommodation. Our outreach team has been working hard to keep linking in with them in their new environments: we’ve connected and supported people including providing mobile phones and wifi to ensure connectivity, food deliveries and welfare visits and calls.

This has been possible because of an amazing response from our local and wider community including, schools, foundations and individuals, helping to source the personal protective equipment that we’ve needed to do this work and more. For some rough sleepers, this is the first time they’ve been inside for a long while, which brings with it a completely different world of challenges.

We’re currently carrying out all of this while attempting to be perpetually ready for whatever challenges we can see impacting our clients next. On top of this, we’re seeing an increase in people coming to us for future support, as the ramifications of Covid-19 spread and sink in.

Our client group is expanding as people prepare to try and navigate their way through the current situation, and so our eyes are fixed forwards as we continue to do all we can to prevent and break the cycle of homelessness.

Find out more about the Freedom2Work Project >>