Every week, our office receives phone calls and emails from people who need help. Sadly, as some of our services – and others around us – are withdrawn, we are finding it harder and harder to offer appropriate support.
We thought it would be interesting to write about the sorts of calls and messages we receive, and share what we do when we can’t help directly.
Reg* phoned Gateway asking for someone who hasn’t worked here for nearly three years! After some confusion, he explained that he’s just come home from hospital and is recovering from heart surgery. At some point he’d picked up a leaflet for Gateway’s Volunteer Befriender service so he was phoning Gateway to see if he could get some support from a Befriender… not realising that the service closed two years ago after funding ended.
He told us, “I just want someone to talk to, really, on the bad days. I’ve been feeling down recently and I don’t have anyone I can just phone to just have a chat about everything.”
We explained to Reg that we are no longer able to offer a befriending service. We took a guess that he is over 50, and suggested that he contact Age UK, who do have befrienders (although there is a charge for the service), and he said he would look into it. He also said he had a rehab appointment at the hospital later that week and would ask them if they could recommend anything.
Aliyah* phoned wanting to know if she could get a Health Trainer. She’d been told about the service by her GP, and had found Gateway after a web search.
We explained that the service had closed, and she was very understanding, but disappointed. She said, “I’ve been suffering from depression and anxiety for a while, and I’ve put a lot of weight on recently. I want to sort myself out but I feel like I need some support. I’m on ESA so I can’t afford to pay for anything privately.”
A Health Trainer would have been perfect for Aliyah. Unfortunately, all we could do was suggest she go back to her GP.
Over the weekend, Sarah* left a comment on a blog post we published about three years ago, when some of our Pregnancy Outreach Workers were seconded as Support Workers to the council’s Temporary Accommodation team. Her comment said, “Hi please is it possible for you to help me and my two children (age under 5). We have been in temporary accommodation in a hotel for three months now and the council can’t offer any help.”
We didn’t publish the comment, but instead contacted Sarah directly. The only contact information she left was an email address, so a POW co-ordinator emailed her first thing on Monday morning with some advice, including links to Shelter, who offer specialist advice and legal support.
How many more?
Phonecalls and messages like this only go to show that the gaps we covered, and the needs we used to meet, are still there. And we have to wonder: how many more people are in need, but unable to get support from anywhere? If we are getting calls like this every week, how many more people are out there needing help and not knowing who to call or where to go?
Reg might be able to get support from an Age UK befriender, but many others wouldn’t even think to ask.
And we are frustrated to have to point Aliyah back to her GP, knowing how busy GPs are. It’s not a clinical intervention she needs; it’s someone who can spend an hour or two with her to chat through her current lifestyle habits and give her a bit of moral support and encouragement. Someone who’ll help her start a food diary, suggest some physical activity suited to her abilities, and come up with a motivational action plan. Someone like… a Health Trainer!
Sarah might have received help from a Temporary Accommodation Support Worker when our POWS were seconded there in the past – although in this case it sounds like she’d already been in touch with the Council and they have been unable to help. Now, all we can do is contact her to tell her that we no longer do this work, signpost her to Shelter, and hope that she receives the email.
So what can we do?
We’ve always prided ourselves on our ability to fill gaps. Although we’re finding it increasingly difficult, it’s what we’ll always try and do.
Many people contact us via the blog after a web search, not realising that the posts were published years ago and the information is out of date. So we’ve added messages to the most popular and relevant blog posts, pointing out that they are reading an old story, and linking to a new Further help and advice page. It covers the most popular topics (housing, safeguarding, befriending and pregnancy) and we’ve tried to make it helpful without overwhelming people with information.
We also keep a directory of services on hand in the office, so that we can try and signpost people who ring us, and we keep in contact with as many other services as possible to make sure it’s up to date.
Keeping ourselves informed is still really important. Having recently started some new work delivering courses, including “5 Ways To Wellbeing”, we are making new contacts, as well as updating what we already know. Everyone at Gateway shares information across the organisation – when we meet with organisations who are new to us, or find out something new, we come back and share it with everyone.
And, despite temptation, we’ve resisted automating our phone system. Instead, we endeavour to answer every call personally. Anyone who phones the office during working hours will speak to a member of staff, who will do their best to help, whatever the question or issue.
All of this doesn’t really add up to the solution we’d like – there are still many gaps, and we’d rather be able to help people ourselves – but it’s better than nothing.
By removing preventative services, the risk is that people’s problems will get much worse before they are able to get the support they need – which of course costs the NHS and the city even more.
And that’s really frustrating.
*names have been changed