While having to close Build on Belief because of coronavirus was like losing a limb, says Tim Sampey, they’ll soon be back to doing what they do best.
We never shut Build on Belief (BoB) services. Never. We’re open every weekend of the year across London, the only exception being if Christmas falls over a weekend, and only then because there’s no public transport. We pride ourselves on always being there – the one constant in the lives of people for whom chaos is so often the norm. Yet here we are, closed for the first time in our history. It’s like losing a limb.
One of the staff summed it up best when she said, ‘I can’t believe it. All those years of addiction and living on the streets, our battles through recovery and getting a job with BoB, and we get taken down by a sodding virus. It’s like living in the War of the Worlds.’
It’s strange how you can run into the law of unintended consequences by sticking to your ethical guns. We’ve always been intensely proud of the fact that everyone employed by BoB volunteered for the charity first. That for half of our staff this is their first experience of paid employment. When it became obvious that the coronavirus was going to be more than an inconvenience, we dug in the medical histories of our staff. Sixty per cent fell into the vulnerable category, at serious risk were we to contract the coronavirus. The same weekend, we had a look at our volunteers. It was even worse. We were faced with a choice, knowing we had no choice. We were going to have to close.
Many of the staff and volunteers didn’t want to. No one raised the issue of their own health or the potential risk they would be taking. Instead they came up with a raft of sweet, if impractical, suggestions. ‘What if we only let people in for ten minutes at a time?’ ‘Couldn’t we limit the numbers so everyone stayed six feet apart?’ All unworkable, but you had to admire their spirit. They wanted to continue working.
All the staff were willing to go and help our local service providers stay open if they couldn’t run their own services, although for many either underlying health conditions or lack of transport made it impossible. They wanted to be busy, to be doing something useful.
With a third of us in self-isolation, and the rest stuck at home, what we feel most right now is guilt. What about our homeless clients? Those whose substance use means they are still living in a whirlwind of chaos and daily uncertainty? The socially awkward and isolated who leave the house just once a week to visit us? Those living in bedsits, trapped in a single room for the foreseeable future? Those without access to the internet and Netflix to alleviate the boredom of being home all day? The hungry? The lonely? We have staff who want to do outreach, staff who want to set up a new food bank, and the answer is always the same. No.
It’s heartbreaking. We are the staff and volunteers of Build on Belief. We’re not used to feeling powerless. We’re used to finding solutions and getting stuck into a problem, not staring out of a window and watching it pass us by. We’ve managed to keep our two existing food banks open, but it’s hard to know for how long.
We’ve set up WhatsApp groups for volunteer teams and the staff (the staff one is hilarious) and are trying to muddle our way through the technicalities of Microsoft Teams and Zoom so we can communicate face to face and do some online training. We update our Facebook and Instagram feeds daily and are working on recovery stories and tips to post on our website. We’re going to join the digital world as best we can and continue to look after each other.
Today we are glad it’s called Build on Belief. We believe we will get through this. We believe things will get better. We believe that before too long we will get back to doing what we do best – helping those who need it most. Build on Belief. It does what it says on the tin.