When Covid-19 lockdown struck in late March, Voluntary Action Leeds (VAL) and Leeds City Council (LCC) quickly responded to launch the Community Care Project. Alongside a central LCC helpline and food distribution, the 33 wards that make up the city were handed over to 33 organisations which became ‘Community Hubs’, responding to the needs of isolating households and linking local volunteers to offer support. Behla Hutchinson, the volunteer coordinator for Headingley and Hyde Park community hub Hyde Park Source, explains their role, the impact on Leeds communities, and the amazing work being done to help.

“When Voluntary Action Leeds made a city-wide plea for volunteers, over 7600 residents stepped forward, an astounding figure. We agreed to co-ordinate Headingley and Hyde Park, working closely with the amazing Pay As You Feel Community Café Rainbow Junktion; we were very lucky to have over 300 volunteers and an established food hub already functioning. The picture across Leeds was quite different for all 33 organisations; some wards were flooded with requests for help, were operating with far less volunteers and no food hub; so, hats off to each and every one of them!

There were many challenges in the first few weeks; we had to figure out how and where to get food, how best to respond to referrals and how to select and support volunteers. It was pretty stressful, but nothing in comparison to the situations many households found themselves in across Leeds. As more time has passed since lockdown started, we have got into more of a rhythm, although there are still unforeseen issues that come up and things are always changing. The next big hurdle will be how we return to our usual jobs, and step away from this project without leaving people in the lurch.”

The impact of the crisis, both globally and here in Leeds, may be long lasting for everyone. For lots of individuals and businesses their lives and livelihoods have been changed unrecognisably. In response, many of them are showing a remarkable resilience, coming together as communities to support one another. At il we released the Local Survival Guide as a simple and effective tool to help independent businesses connect with customers and to encourage people to buy locally. All across the city, there has been positive local action from communities and organisations working together for the people most affected, as Behla has witnessed directly.

“Unfortunately, the people being hit the hardest have the least. The co-ordinated response has highlighted how many families are in need of support regardless of the current crisis; people who have fallen foul of the system and weren’t linked to any support prior to this. I hope for these households, this will change things for the better, as it is much harder to remove support once it has been given.

On the positive side, this crisis has proven the power of people to do good, and the hidden strength of the Third Sector. As part of this, Hyde Park Source depends upon working in partnerships, operating on a tight budget, building relationships, knowing the communities we operate within and their strengths. All these were necessary to respond quickly and support the people who were in need effectively. There has definitely been more overlap between the Public, Private and the Third Sector, which have come together to work more collectively to tackle this crisis.”

This holistic approach is essential. Community hubs respond to referrals passed by the council, along with direct requests from the community. They then speak to the individual to check what help they need: this could be accessing free food parcels from food hubs; organising a weekly shop using paid-for e-vouchers supplied by LCC; or collecting and delivering prescribed medication. Volunteers are selected from a database provided by VAL to link people together as a one-off or longer-term basis. Behla confirms the importance of all of this at Hyde Park Source.

“A huge benefit of this has been the relationships formed between volunteers and the people they have been supporting. They have shared conversations, thoughts, worries and hopes and these seemingly simple interactions have helped to connect communities and break down barriers. In our ward we have also worked really closely with a number of organisations:

Leeds Grand Mosque, who have been running ‘Love in a box’ providing a food parcel and food delivery service; Interserve Justice, who have delivered LCC food parcels using their vans and drivers; Older Wiser Local Seniors (OWLS) for the over 60’s, delivering food and organising befriending calls; Oblong, who manage Woodhouse Community Centre and lead the Woodhouse and Little London Ward working with Gateway Church, Leeds African Communities and Woodhouse Mutual Aid Network.

And Rainbow Junktion, an amazing place dedicated to supporting people in need and offering open doors to anyone and everyone. They intercept food waste, provide a community hub for people to connect and be nourished no matter what their situation. Rainbow Junktion relies heavily on their amazing volunteers, and received donations from many sources The Real Junk Food Project surplus from: The Headingley Green Grocer, The Organic Pantry, Leeds Bread Coop, Mecca Bingo and other local businesses.”

Moving forward, there are positives to take from the lessons and behaviours learnt during this time. Having adapted from their usual activities, Hyde Park Source and others like them have confirmed their importance in connecting and supporting communities in Leeds. They hope to re-start their community groups and city projects in late summer operating in ‘the new normal’. Things will be very different, but Behla is hopeful that it is an opportunity for positive changes.

“There are already some really interesting conversations happening around the cities’ reaction to the crisis; what can we learn and change in order to be more resilient in the future? HPS care a lot about linking communities with unused spaces and land, this pandemic has really highlighted the importance of access to land, local food production and distribution. Although dried food parcels have been provided by LCC on mass, without local supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables it is very hard to provide people with a nutritional and balanced diet.

Leeds has so many unused spaces which could be converted into food producing gardens, there is a chronic problem of access to and ownership of these spaces but when communities take them on amazing things happen. The community share and learn skills, become more self-sufficient, healthier, more connected and resilient. I hope this crisis encourages more people to claim and transform local spaces and connect with their community.”

For now, Hyde Park Source and the 33 community hubs of Leeds continue their vital work. As well as engaging with those most in need, they are communicating how everybody can be involved and help out. Echoing the ethos of our Local Survival Guide, the message from Behla is to come together as a community and support local people and local business.

“Across the city the main thing people can do right now is support their neighbours; VAL have made a great pack with advice around this. The other thing is to donate any spare items to local food hubs. In terms of businesses, we are usually on the look-out for donations of toiletries, toilet roll, cleaning products, and spare unperishable food – so get in touch with your local food hub if you have any spare.

Long term, I think supporting local food is one of the most important things you can do to affect change, cut out the supermarkets, the fast food chains, online everything stores and other multinational. Grow your own food or support Leeds Market, your local baker, butcher, greengrocer, veg box scheme, independent restaurants and cafes. Volunteer with a local gardening group, learn skills and take home free fresh fruit and veg, support local jobs, and a more sustainable system that is resilient in times of crisis will emerge.”

Behla Hutchinson | @hyde_park_source | www.hydeparksource.org