• Sarah Tempest

Neighbourhood's New Normal

Rooftop’s Neighbourhood Team are usually out and about dealing with our customers face-to-face and sorting out any problems that people have. They also organise community events, lead on customer engagement and work to bring people together. COVID-19 has caused some difficulties. Lisa Sutton, Rooftop’s Neighbourhood Manager, had been on leave just before the pandemic escalated into a national crisis. As she returned from her holiday, she was shocked to discover that a Rooftop colleague was ill, probably with Coronavirus. Emergency meetings were called to discuss how the Neighbourhood Team would be able to function.

Emma Cornock is also a Manager in the Neighbourhood Team, as with other departments in Rooftop, and across the country, there was an element of panic and concern about how we would continue to offer services to our customers. Emma also says that the thought of working from home all the time was not one that she looked forward to. She was worried how Neighbourhoods would function as a team, how they would manage not seeing each other and how they would keep in touch. She says “fortunately they were quick to settle into a pattern.”

At the beginning of lockdown, it was decided that there would not be able to be face-to-face contact with customers. There could be no home visits, no mutual exchanges and issues that Neighbourhoods usually deal with, such as complaints about antisocial behaviour, were going to be a challenge, as keeping customers and staff safe was the absolute priority.

The Neighbourhood Team set about establishing a system of welfare calls. The management team began to identify vulnerable people, where there were known issues such as safeguarding concerns, then they began to look at our older customers, who may be shielding or feel isolated as a result of not being able to see family or friends. Neighbourhood Officers were tasked to contact everybody that had been identified. within their patch.

Emma says that the team have had positive feedback from the welfare calls “a lot of people are touched that their landlord is checking in on them.”

In the early days of the pandemic, many customers were nervous about any face-to-face interaction, even at a social distance, so there was a great deal of understanding from our communities that we were doing the right thing. Some of our Neighbourhood Officers did drive bys, just to be able to do visual inspections, to make sure there were not any obvious problems or eyesores, and to deal with issues such as fly tipping, which unfortunately didn’t stop.

The team adapted well to home working and Lisa Sutton says she is very proud of them all. There has been more contact in some ways, as usually many in Neighbourhoods are out and about, but as this has not been possible, regular online video meetings has brought them together.

Peter Stock is a Team Leader in Neighbourhoods, among other things he is responsible for filling voids in our properties. Before anything else could be tackled, Peter says he had to deal with Rooftop’s Main Reception closing, as many customers come into our office.

“It was important to get Reception agile” he says, “to get posters explaining how our services would operate and to get communication channels like the phones set up with correct messaging. Any repair work and maintenance in void properties ceased for at least three weeks as our partner company, Platform, stopped operations. As we settled into lockdown, we prioritised voids and had regular meetings with local authorities about housing needs.”

Rooftop stopped advertising empty properties as viewings were not permitted under the restrictions. This allowed us to be able to step in and help people who were street homeless, or at risk of becoming so. We partnered with St Pauls Hostel in Worcester, an organisation that helps to house people who have been long term rough sleepers who have complex needs, such as addiction and failed tenancies, and who are often side lined because people don’t want to take on the challenge. St Paul’s are part of the Housing First Project.

Usually, Rooftop, as with other Housing Associations, carry out pre-tenancy assessments before an agreement is signed. These could not be carried out as it was important to get people off the streets as quickly as possible. After a brief settling in period we then brought in Rooftop’s support services, our Money Advice Team, Mental Health Support and the guidance of the Neighbourhoods and Income Teams.

Of course, occasional emergencies still had to be dealt with and the restrictions had to be factored in. For example, a lady in Cheltenham had to be moved out of her property because of a leaking roof and she was temporarily housed in a hotel with vouchers to cover her costs, while we dealt with repairs. Another person had to be moved quickly because of a problem with sewerage, the pandemic did not mean that other crises stopped.

The Neighbourhood Team manage hospital accommodation as well as general and specialist housing. In Shrewsbury, we have rooms for medical students, but we changed use quickly so that on-call doctors could use them. This sounds like it should be simple, but there are accommodation agreements with the hospital Trust and there are agreements with the Housing Regulator regarding how a property is being used, so the Team managed the changeovers and formal paperwork in super quick time.

Lisa Sutton says this is one of her proudest achievements in lockdown as it was brilliant to be able to actively help NHS staff and provide comfortable accommodation for them to access immediately.

As lockdown restrictions have eased, Rooftop is still very aware that the pandemic is not over, and the virus is still present out in the community. We are continuing to be cautious. Our routine services have begun to resume, such as viewings and face-to-face meetings with customers who have maintenance issues, or complaints about nuisance. We still have temporary protocols in place and when we make a site visit, we ask that there is only one adult present and that the windows of the property are kept open. Most customers are still understanding that we are in a new normal, but the Neighbourhood Team is having to manage expectations and sometimes deals with hostility. We understand that as the impact of the pandemic continues, this results in impatience and irritation, but Rooftop still needs to put the health and safety of customers and staff first.

Emma Cornock says “It’s been a testing time, but it’s brought us closer as a team.

Lisa agrees, “it’s been challenging, but rewarding”.

“At times it’s been horrible for everyone" adds Peter Stock "but we’ve adapted really well and got on with it.” His proudest moment of the pandemic has been Rooftop’s contribution to homing rough sleepers. “They were at significant risk and we worked with partners to immediately get them accommodation.”

Neighbourhoods will continue to review their protocols and follow Government guidance. They are still working hard for you, but we ask that you remain patient as there are still delays and restrictions in what we can do.

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