Falling through the cracks

The last time I was in the West Gorton Community Rooms it was teaming with kids making artwork, playing hide and seek, and tucking in to free burgers.

That was February half term and community volunteers Heather and Chris were in full swing, supporting local families with activities and hot food.

Today the place is silent. It’s nearly the 100th day of lockdown and a lot has changed since then.

“I remember you said you’d like to start a food bank,” I say as Heather and Chris prepare to make up this week’s food bags, “but I bet you didn’t realise it was going to happen so soon.”

“Exactly,” says Heather. “As soon as it happened we went to the cash-and-carry with our own association funds and bought lots of supplies so we could support local people we knew were struggling. We’ve since had a grant from Forever Manchester but all that’s been spent now.”

Heather and Chris – chair and treasurer of the local tenants’ and residents’ association – know their community well. They have their ears to the ground and can respond quickly to their neighbours’ needs.

“Remember Damien has a cat so let’s remember to put some cat food in with his…”

“We started with just six deliveries and now we’re doing eleven,” says Heather. “Yes, there is other provision – some on the estate get ‘Boris boxes’ as part of the government’s scheme – but we’re helping those who, for whatever reason, don’t qualify.”

“Some are falling through the cracks,” says Chris. “We’re helping a couple of woman fleeing domestic violence and who’ve recently left a refuge. Some of our older people are too proud to ask for formal help, but we know they’re in need…”

“As well as the tins and dried food, we put together a ‘Sunday bag’: enough fresh food to make at least one nutritious hot meal.”

“Are you not worried about risking your own health?” I ask.

“I’ve had a letter,” says Chris. “I should be shielding. But this is going to be around for a while. We need to get used to it.”

Since lockdown lots of community groups have come together and formed the Ardwick and Longsight Covid Mutual Aid Group. Coordinated through an online video conference platform, they share resources and support each other.

“That’s been really useful,” says Heather, “we’ve been able to get supplies of fresh food through one of the other, bigger, food banks and we’ve helped them with storage space in our fridges.

“When I got a call to ask if we could help a recently-arrived Syrian family I contacted another group that was able to supply halal food. I feel as if I’ve got a massive load of volunteers behind me, people I didn’t know before.

“That’s a good thing to have come out of this pandemic: we’re all connected now.”

They know the individual needs of the neighbours they support: “Charles says he doesn’t need any meat this time… he still has chicken from last week.”

After an hour or so, all the bags have been individually made up and, as we start to load them into Heather’s car, she gets a call.

“That’s an extra one,” she says, “someone with mental health issues and a heart condition.”

Soon we set off around the estate. Maureen is waiting. “It means such a lot,” she says, “I can’t get out of the house so this is smashing. There is always lots we can use.”

Maureen: “It’s a lifeline: there’s always fresh fruit and veg, plenty to make a lovely meal.”

Opposite, her neighbours – Arlene and Terry – come to their back gate to collect their bags. “We can’t get out to the shops,” says Terry. “I had a heart attack 18 months ago and another a few weeks back. It’s been difficult.”

Arlene: “It’s really good of them to do this for us all.”

After a couple more drop-offs I leave Heather and Chris to continue their deliveries. And, as I turn onto Hyde Road and head home, I again reflect on the amazing individual efforts that volunteers are putting in week after week to support their neighbours during this worrying time.