Geetha Rabindrakumar writes:

It’s not long since I joined Cardboard Citizens, so much has happened in eight weeks of lockdown, and like so many charities, we have thrown ourselves into our response. Whilst our plans for 2020 for workshops and theatre tours were all thrown into disarray, our mission – to make theatre for social change, empowering people who have experienced homelessness and changing society’s perceptions – feels clearer at this time of crisis. We are still making theatre and art with and for people who have experienced homelessness – but it’s now via Zoom in groups and by phone. And we believe that there is an opportunity ahead to build a better understanding of homelessness in our communities that have stepped up to support the most vulnerable. Here’s how we are delivering our purpose during COVID.

Our Members are our first priority

Our Members are at the heart of our response, and we are working to connect with them, continuing to provide pastoral support and advice on the phone and by email to enable them to meet their basic needs, as well as running remote creative activities. We are aware of digital exclusion for some, and in some cases are paying for phone data to overcome barriers to participation, as well as developing offline creative activities. We want our work to be shaped by our Members’ views, and have to be more thoughtful about how we can meaningfully involve and consult people remotely.

We weren’t sure at first if our Members would still be up for creative workshops during this time, but we’ve been told loud and clear that many people do! Each new activity we develop is oversubscribed, and it’s been fantastic to see how much people are enjoying what they are doing.

At the same time as developing an artistic project based on Daniel Defoe’s “Journal of the Plague Year”, we are helping to connect our Members to emergency accommodation, arranging food parcels, finding local washing facilities and generally supporting individuals with anxiety and uncertainty with other services being scaled back. I continue to be in awe of the sheer range of what a small team is doing at this time.

Above all, as a relative newcomer I’ve learned how much the Citz community means to our Members, and the warmth and positivity with which our COVID work and any communication is received is what makes everything worthwhile.

Looking out

Amidst the frenetic work of emergency remote planning, I looked for some tangible connection to what was happening for people experiencing homelessness through a volunteer night shift at one of the London hotels housing former rough sleepers run by St Mungos. Of course it’s been hugely positive to see that with resources and government will it is possible to ensure that thousands of people have a roof over their heads, and with the same will there should be no going back to the streets for this group. But I was struck by the starkness of being in a hotel room for three months in strict isolation, with no interactions with others beyond meal deliveries to your door.

So I did a call out for books from my neighbours, was inundated with donations, and later took those round the hotel rooms (at a social distance). I saw eagerness and interest from many, and the offer of a book sparked conversations with some about their other creative interests. Since then, it’s been brilliant to work with the local staff at the hotel, to facilitate different remote creative activities for guests – art packs from Accumulate, 1:1 Shared Reading over the phone with The Reader and we at Citz are excited to be starting a creative challenge with a small group of guests at the same hotel this week. And it’s been great to collaborate with With One Voice on a resource to help spread the word so that other places can use similar approaches.

Looking Ahead

It’s starting to feel like the “end of the beginning”. We’re at the early stage of some experiments – things we would never have done otherwise in terms of digital delivery, new collaborations, strengthening connections with our Members, as well as working with people who are so called “hardest to reach” in deep isolation. What do we want to achieve? Above all, to have been here for people in new ways, and together with homelessness partners and our peers in homelessness arts, to have provided a means to combat the effects of COVID-19 isolation on mental health and resilience. And to provide some fun and joy for us all in the process.

In the weeks and months ahead, we will share more about what has worked (and not), and to do more where we can. And ultimately we will create work to share the stories and perspectives that people with experience of homelessness want to be heard, through their creative voice and artistic talents.

Geetha Rabindrakumar
Director of Social Change, Cardboard Citizens