Unexpected benefits

We’re staring into each other’s houses. It’s about Day 23 of lockdown. “I’ve got about half an hour and then I’m manning the Covid helpline,” says Lisa.

Lisa Brown is the community builder for the Ardwick area, employed by charity Forever Manchester to make connections between people and local organisations and, well, build the community.

“At first I thought, how am I ever going to meet people?” she says. “My role is about being out there, walking round so my face becomes familiar. How am I going to make connections if I can’t nod and smile at complete strangers?”

Daunted by the prospect of being locked in, Lisa tells me she started to join all the new social media groups that were being set up locally to help in the crisis.

“I just put myself into those conversations,” she says, “that’s just part of community building. And it’s been amazing. I’ve met all sorts of new people I wouldn’t normally connect with. People who are now at home and looking to help.

“This week alone I’ve connected with 15 new people.”

“So, everyone is pulling together?” I ask.

“Absolutely. Since the lockdown a dozen or so homeless men have been put up in a local hotel, but with no cooking facilities. Each night Raph from ARMR (see his story here) has been making them a hot meal. He’s been amazing. And I’ve now been able to connect him with Brunswick Church so he’s using their kitchen with help from Simon the vicar. That’s just community building gold.”

“Tell me about this helpline you’re about to be on the end of.”

“I’ve been supporting the set-up of the Ardwick and Longsight Covid Mutual Aid Group,” says Lisa, “one of the support groups that set up early on as the community started mobilising to help others.”

The group, Lisa says, is connecting existing community groups with the council, housing providers and other partners. New food banks have been set up, volunteers recruited, posters printed and the phone line put in place.

“£1,600 has been raised already to buy stock for the food banks,” explains Lisa, “because donations from supermarkets have dried up. We’ve got people offering their minibuses and using their own transport to get supplies out there.

“The lockdown means we’re seeing a new wave of vulnerable people in our area: people who wouldn’t normally have problems feeding their families or paying the rent. And that vulnerability is going to continue for some time.”

The response to the crisis, and the increased use of technology, has had unexpected benefits. “I’ve been able to get the groups I know involved in online discussions,” explains Lisa. “We’ve had up to 30 people from across the Ardwick ward in Zoom meetings. And many of these are connecting with each other for the first time, so that’s been good.”

“Are you missing walking the streets, smiling at people?” I ask.

“It’s been non-stop on my computer, I’ve been super busy,” she says, “and, because of the technology, I’m meeting more people than ever.”

“And when we’re out of lockdown, what do you think it’ll be like ‘on the other side’?”

“I think we’ll all need a period of reflection, a chance to take stock. But I hope we can maintain this amazing spirit of community for the challenges we’re going to face in the future.”

Anyone in need can contact the Ardwick and Longsight Covid Mutual Aid Group. Their helpline is 07930 261920 (10.00am to 3.00pm, Monday to Friday).

They work together with Manchester City Council’s own helpline: 0800 234 6123
(8.30am to 5.30pm, Monday to Saturday).