From the file

Unheard voices |

Isolation

Monday 6 April 2020

Everyone will have their own story of the lockdown. Some of the most difficult are unreported


Why this story?

A couple of weeks ago, we held a ThinkIn asking our members to tell us the unheard stories of the lockdown. The accounts of hardship tumbled out. We heard about the impact on homeless people, domestic workers, care leavers, sex workers, people recovering from addiction, and the army of kinship carers who look after children when their parents can’t. So we went to dig deeper and find out more.

David Taylor, editor

No-one is unaffected by the Covid-19 crisis, but it is already clear that the pandemic is not a social leveller.

Where you live, who you live with, and how you make ends meet can all add up to make the challenges more acute.

Older carers

Callum, aged 13, and his sister Willow, eight, have lived with their grandparents since they were babies. Their mother could not safely look after them, so social services pleaded with their grandmother, Wendy Turner, to take them in. The alternative was going into care and most likely being adopted.

Why this story?

A couple of weeks ago, we held a ThinkIn asking our members to tell us the unheard stories of the lockdown. The accounts of hardship tumbled out. We heard about the impact on homeless people, domestic workers, care leavers, sex workers, people recovering from addiction, and the army of kinship carers who look after children when their parents can’t. So we went to dig deeper and find out more.

David Taylor, editor

No-one is unaffected by the Covid-19 crisis, but it is already clear that the pandemic is not a social leveller.

Where you live, who you live with, and how you make ends meet can all add up to make the challenges more acute.

Older carers

Callum, aged 13, and his sister Willow, eight, have lived with their grandparents since they were babies. Their mother could not safely look after them, so social services pleaded with their grandmother, Wendy Turner, to take them in. The alternative was going into care and most likely being adopted.

An estimated 200,000 children just like Callum and Willow are living with friends or relatives because their parents can’t care for them. But many of these carers are older, or infirm: Wendy is 67 and, as well as arthritis and asthma, suffers from chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder after being rushed to intensive care with pneumonia six years ago. Her husband Len is 71. The couple are clearly in the high-risk group for Covid-19. And, like tens of thousands of older or health-compromised kinship carers, they are terrified of what will happen to the children they look after should they fall seriously ill, or even die.

“I’m scared,” says Wendy, coughing slightly down the phoneline. She’s had a cold. “If we come down with it, who is going to step in? What would become of the children? We’ve got nobody that we can call on.”

Has anyone from the local authority rung up to offer any support?

“No,” says Wendy. “I’ve contacted social services recently, they must be aware of us. I know they have a register of children who are in kinship care. I think we’re bottom of their list.”

The children don’t have a social worker because they are living safely with their grandparents. But that masks the underlying precariousness of kinship care families: these children certainly can’t go back to their parents and there is unlikely to be anyone else who can take them on at short notice. Overcrowding is an issue that causes problems in normal times, as grandparents in often modest homes suddenly have to accommodate several siblings; but now the pressure is greater because if a grandparent or indeed their grandchild becomes ill with Covid-19, many will simply not be able to isolate in a room away from everyone else.

Grandparents Plus is a charity that supports kinship carers. Its chief executive Lucy Peake says that calls to their helpline are now dominated by carers with underlying health conditions calling to find out what they should do. “Their invisibility [to services] is a problem,” Peake says. “They’re not making it onto anyone’s list of priorities, but the mistake in that is that these children could easily fall into the care system”.

With foster placements already a scarce resource, charities are expressing mounting concern about how much capacity the overstretched care system has to cope with more children.

Grandparents Plus is asking the government to take note of its survey of 195 kinship carers, carried out last month, which highlighted a need for a hardship fund so that frontline workers can get urgently needed supplies to kinship families as fast as possible. “If grandparents are sharing with children, we need to quickly get an extra bed bought and delivered,” Peake explains.

The increased cost of school closures to households which often can’t make ends meet anyway should also be recognised with an immediate emergency welfare payment of £50 per week, Peake says. And children not living with their parents should also be officially classed as “children in need” and get local authority support if they need it.

As Callum and Willow vye for her attention, Wendy says she is trying to stay positive. “The kids have lost their routine. They’re anxious and we have to try to manage their anxieties. But it would be nice if someone from the council said hello. Just an email pinging in would be great – you know, ‘we’re here if you need us.’”

Sex workers

It was in February, when the first cases of coronavirus were only just being reported in the UK, that JAZZebell_, an online sex worker, started to fear for her livelihood. That’s when her first photo shoot was cancelled. The sex industry is, apparently, extremely sensitive to economic changes.

JAZZebell_ (the online name she prefers to use) makes her money from online subscribers and modelling. All her work is internet-based. After her first cancellations for gigs came the subscription cancellations. Even the small $10-a-month fee she charges is one of the first expenses that people cut in a crisis. Then she noticed something else: she was being undercut in her fees by a flood of what’s known in the industry as “full service” sex workers moving their services online to escape the crisis.

“With the whole pandemic there is now a lot of people turning to internet sex work,” she says. “Then you’ve got a lot of people who have lost their jobs turning to online sex work as well – there isn’t enough to go around.”

She usually earns around £300 a week and lives in social housing. Her income has dropped immediately to around £200 and she’s struggling to pay the rent and stock up on food to see her through the lockdown. It’s the first time she’s had her own flat after years of sofa surfing, and problems with drink and drugs. Sex work has given JAZZebell_ the independence she craved, but now it’s threatened.

“It could ruin business for me. If people don’t have money, they can’t afford sex work. People who do have money have more time, so there is some demand. But prices have gone down recently. Because there’s more people selling it,” she says.

Blue Fawkes works at a charity for sex workers called Umbrella Lane in Glasgow, where JAZZebell_ lives.

“Sex workers like everyone else have to earn a living. If we self-isolate where does the income come from?” she says.

“Our members are asking how to keep safe, how to pay the bills? There’s a lot of fear and a lot of panic. Some people can switch to online sex work or take a break. But we have started a fundraiser for a hardship fund to help them.”

Her members also include Lucy, who is 36 and lives half an hour outside Glasgow. She is a full-service sex worker and continued working through the beginning of the lockdown, feeling she had no other choice. It’s only in the second week of lockdown that she stopped working completely. She has only done this work since January, after meticulously planning how she would move into sex work to earn enough money to leave an abusive relationship and continue to pay her daughter’s private school fees.

“It gives you financial freedom and choices, which is a good thing. But it’s certainly quite an isolating world, anyway. People don’t know what I’ve been doing and there’s such a huge stigma,” she says. “But in the current situation we’re also terrified. We’re not employed but not self-employed either, so it’s not clear what support we will get.”

The cancellation of the Edinburgh Festival, announced last week, made her realise that this crisis was going to continue for some months. But she realises we’re all in the same boat. “Everyone is in the same situation – where job stability is gone and that gives a sense of togetherness. You realise you’re not the only person in this situation.”

Lucy worries that the economic climate will force more women into sex work, against their wishes. “In six months’ time there will be a significant rise in girls doing this. That’s what happens when the economy takes a downturn.”

Domestic workers

Crouched on the lower bunk of a bed, Lyn sits with her arms hugged tightly across a crisp, blue carer’s uniform.

The bunk bed fills the screen, hinting at the size of the room Lyn is largely confined to when she’s not caring for her employer, a wealthy elderly man. “I’m a nurse assistant,” she says. “I am the one who prepares his medicine… I prepare his food”.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, Lyn’s usual 30-hour week has morphed into a 24/7 role. “I can’t go out… if I go out I’ll be homeless and jobless,” she says. “My employer’s daughter says I can’t leave, I cannot go down to the reception area to get food.”

Lyn has now been confined to her employer’s flat for more than three weeks. “I’m locked, I don’t have a day off. I see some of the buses, some of the cars, some of the people walking, I’m just watching them in the window. It’s like a prison.” Lyn starts to weep. And the social distancing that is a feature of our new reality is painfully obvious.

She is one of four women who have joined us for a call on Zoom, the video conferencing service. They have been brought together by Marissa Begonia who runs the charity The Voice of Domestic Workers. All of them, from the Philippines and Indonesia, brought to the UK to work in homes of the wealthy, now find themselves leading a tenuous existence, cast out without wages, or trapped like Lyn.

All of us on the call, journalists from Tortoise, Marissa, and the other women have an intimate view of Lyn, helplessly mopping her tears with a towel. None of us can really comfort her.

Marissa takes over: “This is a double tragedy for domestic workers. It is proven and unquestionable that migrant domestic workers are the most vulnerable group of workers.”

In May last year, the charity called on the government to reinstate the pre-2012 Overseas Domestic Worker visa to help end modern slavery. Around 19,000 Overseas Domestic Worker visas are issued each year to domestic workers entering the UK from outside the EU.

Their work is often hidden and unregulated. Research by the charity shows two thirds of migrant domestic workers experience physical, verbal or sexual abuse, while over half are not given enough food or a private place to sleep.

Marissa is currently helping 16 migrant domestic workers during the lockdown with deliveries of cash and food. “I haven’t really reached out to so many of them,” she says, “as there are 1,500 members so I would need to call them one by one.”

We heard from Mary, 35, who worked 20 hours a week as a cleaner in a big house in Richmond, west London for nearly three years, but was terminated by her employer, “she said I can’t come back”. Sophie, 28, was also told to pack her things and leave her job as a housekeeper and nanny for an American family she lived with just outside Oxford. Sophie originally came to the UK with her previous employer from Qatar, but fled after they beat her with a bamboo stick.

Lotlot is one of the 16 receiving Marissa’s help after losing her job three weeks ago. “My employer said to stop going to work because one of the [family] members was infected,” she says. “He gave me only £100 without any assurance that I can come back to work.” Brought over from Dubai by an old employer six years ago, Lotlot, 42, a Filipino with two children back in her home country, is an undocumented worker, making her particularly vulnerable if she tried to access outside support.

In the background of our video call, a child cries for attention, though the nature of Zoom makes it unclear where it is coming from. What is clear is that this is not a child belonging to any of the four women on our call. Their own children are quickly growing up halfway across the world, in the Philippines and Indonesia.

“I miss them so much,” says Lyn. “I keep thinking of them, I couldn’t sleep, I don’t know if they have enough food each day.” Most migrant domestic workers don’t have bank accounts and, as they are now unable to go out, are struggling to send money home to support their families.

Lyn escaped her previous employer after contacting Marissa via email asking to be rescued. She was picked up around the corner by a support team. “Before… they always called me like not a human, they called me like I’m an animal. And it’s just like, you know, my dignity, I lose my dignity.”

Referring to the lockdown, she says: “It reminds me of before. The trauma… it reminds me of trauma from my past.”

Care leavers

Luke Elkins and his twin brother, born premature, underweight and into a violent home, were taken into care when they were just a few months old.

“They didn’t think we would survive if we were left at home,” Luke says. “So I have been in many places, boarding schools, children’s homes, foster families.”

He left the care system at 21 or 22, and lives in a flat in Hemel Hempstead, north of London, with his dog, a Staffie called Bailey.

His brother lives around the corner, and, every week, he would see his old foster mother, Jo. “Since I left care that relationship has always been there. She’s my Mum, really. She nags me like any mum would do, I guess.

“I normally see her once a week, but she’s an NHS nurse and she’s kind of in the thick of this pandemic. I’ve spoken to her briefly, but I’ve not been able to see her. It’s hard.”

For billions of people around the world, Covid-19 has meant lives, routines and support networks have been interrupted. Isolation can breed anxiety, and for people who have been damaged or feel emotionally vulnerable, it’s a particularly acute moment.

Luke, 27, says: “About 10 years ago, I really struggled. I live in a small flat, I was kind of boxed in. I was quite low with depression and did once try to take my own life. I’ve come a long way from that. For me, I’ve got to keep myself as active as I can. The big thing for me is having work and a routine.

“Young people in the care system, when they are boxed in like that or have time to themselves, they think about everything that they’ve been through in their lives and that’s not necessarily good. I’m managing at the moment, I’m trying to find work and go to my brother’s and stuff, but, in the past, being stuck in my flat is the worst thing.”

Before C-19, he had freelance work in TV and film, working in location departments on several productions, but the work he had has dried up, although he has just enrolled for a ScreenSkills training scheme that has been putting on some online meetings during the lockdown. He gets universal credit and has his rent paid, so he is at least secure in his flat.

He has also just applied for a Covid-19 volunteer role in the NHS and for the past two years has been on an advisory group for Become, the charity for children in care and young care leavers.

Katharine Sacks-Jones, CEO of Become, said the small charity, which deals with hundreds of young people each year, has seen a spike in demand for guidance and support.

A lot of the work was online or via their phone helpline, so services have continued, but the support has changed.

Young people worry about being alone, not having enough money for food or not having enough data on their phones to stay in touch.

“It’s really changed since coronavirus,” she said. “We’re now calling every day, just checking in on people. Young care leavers are often already quite isolated, have mental health problems like anxiety, depression – all of that has really been exacerbated.

“If you are a young care leaver, you’ve come through a lot of adversity, you are just starting to think about college or work, and all of that is just pulled out from under you – it’s really difficult and adds to that anxiety and stress that young people are already facing.”

Luke and his brother both live alone and close to each other, so Luke has been visiting his brother every day. “I don’t think I’m really meant to be, but that’s the only thing that’s actually keeping me going at the moment, having that ability. He lives ‘round the corner from me, so I go to his. We just chill out. We eat, watch telly, there’s a garden – we’re going to do it up when the weather gets nicer.”

Homeless people

Since Covid-19 went global, everyone else has been fleeing from airports, but Paul Atherton has not left Heathrow for more than a week.

As runways close and departure boards empty, Paul has been a constant in Terminal 5, part of an unlikely, little-known population of homeless people who treat the airport as a safe space to shelter – open 24 hours and under cover, so long as you time it right and catch the N9 night bus or the last tube train on the Piccadilly Line.

There is nothing stereotypical about Paul. He has MECFS, chronic fatigue syndrome, which leads to crashes in his health and has left him unable to reliably hold down a gig, even while he has managed to achieve an impressive cultural output in the past decade from photography exhibitions to talks.

His life story sounds like a drama – and indeed, on the very day that all of the UK’s theatres were ordered closed, it did play out on stage, the last performance at the Camden People’s Theatre before Britain’s theatres went dark. Fifty Years of Trying was the autobiographical story of how Paul went from successful professional with a penthouse flat overlooking the Thames to sleeping out at Heathrow, after an intervening decade where he made his home in hostels and, for a couple of years, lived from his car.

He narrated the show which ended with him picking up his bag and heading for Heathrow – just as he did in real life as the lockdown took hold.

His pattern in the past couple of years has been to head to Heathrow in the early hours, but since the lockdown, and amid fears that the semi-permanent homeless community at the airport is likely to be moved on, he has stayed put.

“The biggest problem is finding a bunch of seats you can lie down on. Double seats are very rare, the seats all have anti-homeless design measures with armrests.”

Security has been tightened on the tube platforms to stop homeless people entering the terminals since the Covid-19 lockdown began.

He told us last week during a ThinkIn: “It’s usually just where I just lay my head down, but now it’s where we’ve all ended up stuck. There’s about 100, maybe 150, homeless people residing here at the moment. Before the weekend Sadiq Khan, the mayor, was suggesting there were going to be hotel rooms released. That was supposed to be a trial but you may have heard already that Travelodge and Premier Inn are now evicting people anyway.

“There was a level of hope that hotel rooms are on the horizon, but that’s gone silent. We’re stuck in this limbo. We’re not being listened to at all. There are a lot of homelessness organisations shouting at people to address this. But the government and the mayor’s office doesn’t seem to be listening.”

Paul is eloquent and funny, but he is furious at the paralysis which has gripped policymakers over how to make homeless people safe, not only in the time of the pandemic.

“I am angry that there’s such disregard for people without homes – over the last 40 years. It’s not just street homelessness, all these voices have been ignored for decades. It seems like we are expendable.”

Speaking to Tortoise last week from a near-empty Terminal 5, he said: “I did a count last night and there were 70 of us at Heathrow. I haven’t left the airport for days because if people were leaving, they weren’t getting back. I’m scared to leave.”

He wonders if he has already had the virus after a bout of illness a month ago. “There is a huge chance of catching Covid,” but then he adds: “I’m already four years over my life expectancy. As a male on the streets, you are only expected to live until 48.”

Polly Neate is chief executive of the housing charity Shelter, which is battling to keep its own services up and running at a time when the dramatic economic downturn is threatening a new wave of invisible homelessness.

“Homelessness is traumatic whether you’re sleeping rough, sofa-surfing or a family squashed into one tiny room of an emergency B&B. Coronavirus is only making things worse,” she says.

“Our free helpline has already seen a surge in calls from people terrified of losing the roof over their head. And we’ve spoken to countless homeless families feeling desperately anxious because they don’t have the space to isolate, or because they’ve got to share communal bathrooms and kitchens.”

Tina, 44, and her daughters are one of those families. For several years she has been sofa-surfing with friends and family with her daughters, after a dispute over rent arrears with her council ended acrimoniously. Previously, she could move between homes, so as not to put too much pressure on her hosts, but now her and her five-year-old daughter are trapped at her elderly mother’s until the lockdown ends. According to government rules, they shouldn’t be cohabiting.

“There’s only one bedroom. I’m in my mum’s room during the day, and then a front room when she goes to bed. We sleep on the sofa. We walk around the local green once a day for exercise, otherwise we’re stuck inside and it’s small.

“My mum gets stressed with my child. They clash. My mum is older and has a stick. My daughter has toys on the floor. There just isn’t space. It’s stifling. I just need a permanent home. I’m getting older. I can’t keep moving.”

Recovering from addiction

Sometimes all it takes is a cup of coffee and a bit of a whinge to put Phil Parkes back on track.

He’s been sober now for 11 months after ending up in hospital with pancreatitis caused by his addiction to alcohol.

Heavy drinking was an acute problem for him stretching back years, but by no means the only one.

Phil suffered an abusive childhood, has been diagnosed with a range of mental health issues from PTSD to bipolar disorder, and throughout his teens and 20s bounced around the homeless and hostel scene in Stoke-on-Trent.

He’s 35 now, has his own place a couple of miles outside of the city centre in Bucknall, and he has made great progress. He volunteers with a community interest company called Expert Citizens, which helps design better services for public bodies and charities so they can handle people who come to them with multiple and complex issues, like homelessness, addiction and mental health.

But the lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, a great disruptor for all of us, is a particular challenge for people like Phil.

“Self-isolation is one of the factors in most mental health cases,” he told us. “When it’s going bad I will self-isolate, shut myself off from the world. The way I break out of it, I pluck up the courage to go out to the office or my parents. That avenue is taken away now from people who might be in a mental health slump.”

So he is getting out for little-and-often shopping trips, and trying to keep himself busy.

“Since I became sober just over 11 months ago, I used to go in every single day to Expert Citizens. I could just talk, just sit and have a cup of coffee, have a little whinge to somebody in the office, that would make me feel better.

“I can message them, but it’s not the same on the telephone, I feel I’m putting people out.”

Darren Murinas, chief executive of Expert Citizens, agreed that there was some magic in the formula of “come in, have a brew, have a moan – and then the next day do something really productive and get involved in something really amazing”. Phil helps on research towards writing the reports for the company’s clients and has represented them at national conferences.

Having that contact and sense of purpose taken away from you is difficult when you have mental health problems, Darren said. “Not everyone can afford internet access, or a phone. For a lot of people, the priorities have to be keeping warm, fed and alive.”

Phil was in a good place when we talked. Like many of us right now, his taste in entertainment was veering towards post-apocalyptic escapism –The Walking Dead on Netflix, and playing Fallout 4 on his games console.

He was about to head to the shops for a few things – and absolutely not any alcohol. He has a good mind game he plays where he imagines fast-forwarding a movie. “When you are alone with your thoughts, I know if I went and got a bottle of rum, at least for a few days I can block it out. It’s a technique I have. Play the tape forward. ‘It’s a good idea now, will it be tomorrow?’

“It’s normally a good idea at the time, but looking ahead, it will turn into a horrible idea in a week’s time.”

Darren says his team is checking in on Phil on a daily basis. “He loves to be kept busy, so we’re keeping him as busy as possible even though our work has stopped in some cases.

“His journey of recovery and change is absolutely incredible, but then this happens and we say ‘you can’t come in now’. You hope people don’t slip back. We have to just make sure we are still here if he wants a whinge.”

Many of the people in this article are members of Tortoise via the Tortoise Network. This is our network of not-for-profits, NGOs and charities with deep roots in local communities across the UK. They help us distribute funded memberships to people who aren’t usually heard from in the news. This is how we ensure we have true diversity in the Tortoise membership and wide-ranging experiences contributing to our journalism. If you’d like to find out more about becoming a supporter of the Network, or to join the Network as an individual or an organisation, please contact annabel@tortoisemedia.com.

Photographs courtesy of interviewees and Darren Fletcher Photography