We’re in the back room of ARMR, the busy plant-based café run by Raph Swaby, opposite the O2 Apollo on Stockport Road. The place is heaving with people today and more like a local community centre.
I’m here for a meeting of the Ardwick and Longsight Mutual Aid Group (ALMAG) and it’s a weird one. Although it’s been going for 18 months this is the first time the group has formally met in person.
There’s a mix around the table: some professionals from health and housing, and some volunteers and residents too. It’s this mix, I’m about to find out, which is the strength of the group.
Nico Dhillon from the NHS wellbeing organisation, Buzz is chairing the meeting.
“ALMAG has done amazing work but things have changed,” they say. “We’re here today to discuss if the group should carry on and, if so, in what form.”
Let me go back go back to the beginning of the pandemic to explain how ALMAG came about.
Like many places around the country this mutual aid group quickly sprung up to help those in most need: older people shielding, those who’d suddenly lost their incomes, vulnerable people whose normal support networks had broken down.
Back then I chatted to Forever Manchester’s Lisa Brown who joined the group and was often on the end of the telephone hotline. It was a busy time but I recall her saying how many agencies and groups were getting to know each other through their Zoom meetings.
Now things have changed. Volunteers who might have helped with food bag distribution, for example, have gone back to work after being on furlough.
But there’s unanimous agreement around the table that the group, in some form, needs to stay together. “Of all the groups we know in Greater Manchester,” says Lisa, “there isn’t another like it for the level of cooperation and for getting things done. It would be a shame for it to disappear.”
Even before the pandemic Ardwick and Longsight had huge health inequalities and Covid has made those worse. There are higher than average Covid rates here and, for lots of reasons, lower than average vaccination take up.
How, I ask, has the group helped?
“The agencies haven’t been able to see what’s been happening on the ground in the same way residents have,” explains local health worker Carlos Tait, one of the first to identify the need for a mutual aid group back in 2020. “Residents have referred their neighbours to the agencies who can help. They have been our eyes and ears and the community couldn’t have been supported without them.”
Despite things getting back to ‘normal’ everyone agrees there’s still a need for this invaluable combination of local people and professionals sharing information and solving local challenges.
Zaman from the Work for Smile food bank charity in Longsight explains how the £20 Universal Credit cut is affecting the people they see each week. “The problems haven’t gone away,” he says, “If we can help them with food then they can put the heating on.”
West Gorton resident and Hand & Heart correspondent, Wardeh is here too. She’s hoping to set up a self help group for local women who’ve recently arrived in the UK: “These women are isolated and have no confidence,” she tells the group, “it’s as if no one cares about them. I’m surrounded by many women like this.”
Immediately Wardeh is offered practical support from others in the room, and the power of the mutual aid group is clear to see.
Within the hour it’s been decided the group will not only continue but suggestions fly around as to how best to take it forward. “The Forever Manchester funding offer is still very much on the table,” says Lisa.
To me, the outside observer, it’s great to see this joined-up approach, so often missing in local delivery of services. Agencies, volunteers and residents, solving problems together, all equal around this table. Maybe it’s a blueprint.
The Ardwick and Longsight Mutual Aid Group is on Facebook.