If nothing changes, nothing changes: Reflections on carrying out research with people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic

Nov 10, 2020

Stephan Morrison
Project officer, Groundswell
Jo Brown
Research manager, Groundswell

As winter looms and the UK enters its eighth month of lockdown with varying degrees of restrictions still in place, Groundswell continues to adapt the way in which it delivers research in order to provide workable and lasting solutions for the organisation whilst maintaining its core values of participation and involvement. Our vision of an equal and inclusive society means we aim to ensure that people experiencing homelessness are central to decision making processes, their voices are at the heart of every action undertaken and therefore the solutions to homelessness come directly from the people who have experienced homelessness themselves.

With those experiencing homelessness already amongst the most vulnerable in society, the pandemic created an unprecedented need for people to be housed immediately so that they could follow the guidelines outlined by Public Health England to self-isolate, practice social distancing and access washing facilities regularly. With that in mind, Groundswell redirected its resources towards documenting, supporting people and tackling the issues that had arisen as a result of COVID-19. Within a few weeks the ’Monitoring the impact of COVID-19’ project was born and measures were in place to start implementing a plan.

Initially, we started by gathering daily diaries where staff and volunteers documented their day-to-day experiences so we could  understand what issues were arising rapidly. We also conducted in-depth interviews with those directly impacted by homelessness and through their stories gained valuable insight into what was happening in major cities across the UK, including London, Birmingham, Greater Manchester and Newcastle. In partnership with On Our Radar - a specialist group of journalists and digital storytellers - we enlisted a team of citizen journalists, each with lived experience of homelessness to report on their own experiences during the pandemic and the stories of others in their communities.

Of course, the mechanisms that usually characterised the way in which we interacted with people had changed. The pandemic had also altered common rules of behaviour and values and with that came a new set of challenges to overcome as people faced the uncertainty of having to deal with life in isolation as COVID-19 took centre stage in all aspects of everyday life. This blog outlines the challenges and barriers we faced carrying out research, shares our ongoing learning and sheds light on some solutions for those also conducting research during the pandemic.

As an organisation used to working with people on a face-to-face basis suddenly being propelled into a world of stay at home and hastily assembled makeshift office space with nothing more than our telephones and laptops for company, our means to building positive and meaningful relationships had like most become digital. Of course, we could adapt. We have the means in place for doing this but for someone experiencing homelessness a smartphone or a computer can be a bridge too far - add the cost of maintaining, financing or accessing broadband to communicate with the wider world when you barely have enough to feed and clothe yourself then it’s understandable that in any list of priorities these items didn’t always take precedent in their life. And even when these things were in place, understanding the technology and downloading Zoom or WhatsApp to your phone could present barriers for people and undermine their ability to communicate effectively. Mindful of this, we provided credit to all our citizen journalists and peer researchers as and when they requested. In some cases, we also provided smartphones and worked with people to help them understand the technology so they could feel confident when using it and stay involved and connected. We provided incentives as a thank you for taking part in interviews or workshops and volunteer expenses for any costs incurred when a citizen journalist interviewed someone or wanted to compile a report in more pleasant surroundings like a café whilst having a coffee.

For some people they did not have a bank account or a postal address, so we had to consider other ways to provide expenses and incentives. This involved sometimes setting up a PayPal account, using electronic gift cards and if necessary, asking a Groundswell Care Navigator or Homeless Health Peer Advocacy (HHPA) Project Worker, who were still doing outreach, to deliver them personally whilst maintaining social distancing. With the easing of restrictions, we were able to engage with one of our citizen journalists, who lived locally, face-to-face. They did not have a bank account or address and their only means of interacting with us was via email. We did provide a phone but unfortunately the process of getting up and running was fraught with barriers and time delays, but with perseverance and continued engagement eventually we were able to form a relationship. This culminated in them producing some informed and inspired reports about their experiences during COVID-19. It also poses the question that although online communication may be faster and more convenient in many ways, can it ever really contend with and be as effective as face-to-face interactions when discussing something as personal as someone’s experiences during emotional upheaval and personal hardship?

As the days turned into weeks and we continued to hear the difficulties people were facing, coupled with our own sense of powerlessness, the impact on researchers’ mental health was something that also had to be addressed in order to maintain their wellbeing and continue to provide the duty of care that resulted in the best experience possible for everyone involved. To support researchers, daily debrief sessions were set up to discuss any issues that had arisen. This helped create a safe space to maintain wellbeing and act quickly if someone needed support. We set up a reference group as part of the project to discuss and put measures in place to counteract the issues people were experiencing. They helped to steer the project and think about how we could turn the insights we had gathered into action – whilst also ensuring the voices of people with experience of homelessness were central to the research process. We produced accessible guides on how to apply the Government’s guidance when rough sleeping, living in shared accommodation, on how to access GP services and support for people dealing with substance misuse. We also liaised with our HHPA team to support people who were going without food or needed access to medication.

The absence of face-to-face fieldwork meant that trust had to be built up and a common ground found before people felt comfortable to engage in the research. Participants were often more receptive to the call and open when interviewers shared their own experiences of homelessness. It seemed to have a therapeutic value and helped to create an understanding and a willingness to be open and share their experiences more freely. Once again, highlighting the power of peer research and the importance of ensuring that those who have first-hand experience are involved throughout the research process.

For the people we spoke to, we heard that many of the services they relied on for support had been decimated by COVID-19. This created a vacuum that appeared to be causing a sense of hopelessness and helplessness and within this new society, where no-one intrudes, a void had opened up that painted a picture more often than not of a community struggling to come to terms with what the Government and media outlets were calling “the new normal”. This meant ensuring people had an opportunity to get their voices heard was increasingly and continues to be paramount.

As we enter the final months of 2020, we are continuing to see the impact of COVID-19 with local lock-down measures increasingly being put in place to stop the spread of the virus. If this truly is the “new normal” then it is now more important than ever for organisations and policy-makers to work with those experiencing homelessness to plan, respond and develop solutions to the challenges that lay ahead.

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