The Coronavirus Crisis: Appeal for community support

Herne Hill and Brixton charities have not escaped the Coronavirus crisis. One of our community’s best-known organisations, the Brixton Advice Centre on Railton Road, has struggled to cope with a significant increase in calls for help. The Centre has served local people for over 50 years and normally handles anywhere between 2000 and 5000 cases each year. Austerity and changes in the government’s Legal Aid scheme have reduced its income so there are now only half the number of staff the Centre employed 10 years ago, supported by a small team of volunteers.

Yet with the crisis demand for help has grown significantly. Inner London does not have so much as a housing crisis as a housing catastrophe. Chronic shortage of accommodation and sky-high rents provide a steady stream of anxious clients and the Centre spends a lot of time negotiating with landlords, including councils and housing associations, on arrears and threatened evictions. The Centre has even had to go to Court in order to keep a roof over a client’s head. Unfit housing and lack of essential repairs also generate an inordinate amount of work. The reality, or threat, of homelessness is deeply damaging to family life. Young lives especially are blighted.

The Centre copes with a stream of clients facing chronic debt. Not the feckless poor of the imagination of tabloid editors, but decent people on low wages or zero hours contracts, often with more than one job, just unable to house and feed a family on their incomes. The shocking growth in food banks is a symptom of years of austerity, welfare cuts and the disastrous Universal Benefits system that has driven so many families to the brink. Until the present crisis the Centre did vital outreach work at local food banks. That so many should suffer poverty in such a rich country is a national disgrace. All this has worsened as a consequence of the current crisis.

The advisors are critical in helping very poor people negotiate the maze of complexity that is the parsimonious benefits system. They keep people fed. It’s that bad. Volunteer solicitors/barristers at the evening pro-bono clinic support the staff by advising on a range of other issues.

The Centre is led by Chief Executive Patrick Torsney, a streetwise and experienced professional who is held in high esteem in the Advice sector. The staff are a patient, well-qualified and tough group of caring professionals.

But this crisis is overwhelming; the open-door service has been suspended in line with government advice, but work continues remotely on the phone and on-line, itself a challenge for many with no phones or access to computers. Even apparently simple home-working arrangements for staff required a financial outlay for equipment and back-up documentation from money the Centre just does not have. The staff are often just unable to cope with the numbers seeking their help. We know that once the present restrictions are lifted the Centre will be faced with a wave of people needing help with debt, and housing and employment issues arising from the crisis.

And funding bodies, like the Government’s Legal Aid Agency, sail on, expecting the same level of service and taking no account of the dramatic changes in working conditions imposed by this crisis or the substantial increase in the numbers seeking advice.
Herne Hill and Brixton are caring, friendly and community-minded places. The Coronavirus crisis is drawing us all together in a way we have not previously seen. The Centre, like other local charities, is a key part of that.

So, this is the time for us all to take responsibility for sustaining organisations like the Centre that are the lifeblood of any place you would want to live. The Centre needs more funding to pay more staff to cope with the Crisis.

Don’t wait for the Council, or the government, or anyone else to do something. If you are blessed with a good life then think of those who have nothing to fall back on in this crisis.

Sustain the Centre!

Put your hand in your pocket and send a cheque payable to ‘Brixton Advice Centre’
Patrick Torsney
Chief Executive
Brixton Advice Centre
167 Railton Road
Herne Hill
London SE24 0LU.

Or Bank Transfer (use “donation” as the reference) to:
Brixton Advice Centre
Account: 70404128
Sort Code: 08 90 29

All donations will be used only to fund Centre Staff.
Together we can get through this. And be stronger

Fred Taggart
Trustee: Brixton Advice Centre since 1988.