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Migrant support group gets Covid-19 safe with help from Freebridge Community Fund


A West Norfolk charity providing support to migrant workers is hoping to re-open its doors soon thanks to a grant from the Freebridge Community Fund.

Access – supporting Migrants in East Anglia is based in King’s Lynn and helps those moving to the area from outside the UK to get help and advice on a range of topics. But they’ve had to stop face to face appointments in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the funding from Freebridge will help them to purchase various protective items that are needed before they can get staff back in the door, and eventually open to visitors.

Along with the expected things, the director of Access Marie Connell tells us there are some things that may surprise people: “We need simple things like extra sets of keys, I know it sounds really daft but we only have a couple of sets of keys which means multiple staff are handling the same keys. I’d like it to be that everyone has their own set. The keys I need are incredibly expensive as they’re for security doors – we’re talking £20/£30 to get a key cut. Normally I can’t afford to do this as I don’t have the budget but the money from Freebridge will mean there’ll be less risk of people becoming infected from the same set of keys.”

As a charity they get most of their funding from the National Lottery and were given an emergency grant from them to help get through the pandemic. In order to eventually reopen fully they had to look elsewhere for grants because money is tight, as Marie explains: “None of this has been budgeted for. We didn’t apply for funding for this because we didn’t see it coming.”

Normally all of their appointments are face to face, but they’ve been providing telephone advice all the way through the lockdown instead, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Marie tells us that this can be a challenge for some: “We will always have some clients who can only be supported 100% by face to face interaction but unfortunately that’s not possible at the moment. These are usually more vulnerable people with more complex needs and we are hoping that eventually we will be able to open up the office and have them come and see us in person – hopefully later this year, and if not then early next year.”

Going virtual also brings its own problems for some, particularly when it comes to people having the technology to get connected, as Marie tells us: “We have some clients who do not have access to digital means – they can’t afford a laptop or a computer, they might not have a smart phone. At the moment so many things are done digitally and over the phone it can be a challenge. It’s helped now that the libraries have opened.”

Demand for services at Access has increased by 100% during lockdown, with advice being given on the usual things like housing, benefits and debt reduction but also on Covid-specific issues like the furlough scheme and understanding lock down rules. Some native English speakers have found the government advice confusing so understanding it once it’s translated brings its own set of challenges!

With the increased range of subjects that the project workers are providing advice on, comes a massively increased amount of research and keeping on top of often regularly changing information. Marie is clearly very proud of them: “I have a brilliant team who get on and do what they need to do. They know from the information that’s come out, what they’re going to be asked. One of the advantages of them working from home has been that they’ve been able to give themselves time to do the research, do online training courses if needed, talk to each other and share the right information.”

Many of the people Access work with are employed in key worker roles and have been busier than ever during the past few months. These roles are often at the hospital or working in local food production. One of the bonuses to the more digital way that the team have been working has been an increased flexibility to the support they provide. Many of those key worker roles are shift based and so Marie and her colleagues are now more able to help at different times and through different methods such as email or text message: “What this pandemic has taught us is that we don’t need to just do face to face, we can do telephone calls and make it more accessible to those working shifts. Moving forward we will probably be able to provide a wider range of services.”

What Access ultimately hopes to do is to give people the tools to eventually be able to deal with these kinds of issues themselves – whether that’s through access to language support or signposting to helpful agencies. But right now, Marie says they are gearing up for a busy time: “Whether a second wave happens or not, we are going to get busier over the next few months. With the furlough scheme changing coming to an end in October we anticipate that people are going to need help and advice about how they get through all of that.

“We do put a lot of the information on our website and Facebook page, in the different languages of course. Norfolk County Council and West Norfolk Borough Council have been very good at getting messages out in different languages so as many people as possible have the information they need.”

The funding from Freebridge’s Community Fund is part of a number of grants provided to West Norfolk charities and community groups by the housing association. Thirteen projects across the area have benefitted this year, with each being awarded amounts up to £1000. This year Freebridge raised the amount available to the fund to £10,000, double the £5000 that is normally offered, to mark the fact that they've been providing this money to groups for a decade. The successful projects were chosen by a committee made up of Freebridge employees and tenants.

We'll be taking a closer look at each of the grant recipients as part of #FreebridgeFundFriday each week.