Voluntary sector organisations are rising to the challenges of coronavirus - they need government support

In a guest blog for CYP Now magazine, our CEO James Kenrick looks at how the voluntary sector is responding to the challenges of coronavirus, and makes the case for government support.

The coronavirus pandemic has transformed our country in a way that was unimaginable mere weeks ago. Bustling city streets have been deserted, schools have closed and millions have taken to working from home in an effort to slow the spread of this deadly pathogen.

It is absolutely right that we are doing everything possible to reduce the strain on the NHS and protect those at most risk. But that doesn’t mean that other vulnerable members of society should be forgotten.

Even before the virus plunged us into this unprecedented situation, young people across the country were facing crises of their own, and struggling to access the support needed to overcome them. Too many young people are forced to wait unacceptable lengths of time for mental health services that often fail to meet their needs, while a decade of cuts has left crucial advice services all but out of reach.

As statutory services have struggled to meet demand, it has consistently been voluntary sector organisations that have picked up the pieces. Back in 2013 my organisation Youth Access, a nationwide network of community-based youth information, advice and counselling services, found that despite a combination of increased demand for support and severe funding pressures following the global financial crisis and austerity measures, the voluntary sector was able to quickly adapt to the new environment, filling many of the gaps in provision that were left in the wake of government cuts.

In the face of a new crisis, the sector is having to adapt again. With social distancing measures confining both young people and frontline workers to their homes, community-based organisations are quickly pivoting from in-person services to online and telephone support. Our members have told us of multiple ways they are rising to meet the challenges of the moment, from fast-tracking new remote working policies to ensuring safeguarding procedures are in place to protect vulnerable young people from exploitation and abuse during the lockdown.

I have been inspired by the speed and dedication with which organisations have responded to this urgent and unpredictable situation to keep on providing high quality and accessible young person-centred support. If they are to continue to be able to do so, however, many of them are themselves going to need support very soon.

Alongside the impressive measures to mitigate the impact of this crisis on young people, one topic that comes up again and again in conversations with organisations around the country and across the sector is the critical strain on funding. While community fundraising income is drying up and project-based funding is thrown into question, organisations are also struggling to hit ambitious targets agreed with funders or commissioners before the crisis hit.

Despite the flexible, supportive and rapid approach of some funders in the youth sector to reassure grantees, there are still concerns about the future, as stock market losses and low interest rates suggest shrunken funding pots amongst trusts and foundations, and question marks are raised about the level of government spending once its crisis measures are lifted. The Chancellor’s announcement of £750 million funding to prop up the charity sector is welcome, but it won’t be enough to plug all the holes that this crisis have created – nor will it assuage fears about an uncertain financial future.

Having weathered the storm of austerity, many services such as Youth Access members, who deliver a lifeline for young people in the heart of their community, were already just about managing to make ends meet. These new pressures could be terminal for some, at just the time when their accessible, adaptable and young person-centred services will be most needed. Research has already shown around a third of young people to have suffered worsened mental health as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, while extended periods of isolation coupled with the economic impacts of the lockdown are likely to see even more needing advice and counselling in the coming months and years.

This virus is taking thousands of lives and upending every facet of our society. But it is also showing us that it is possible to make drastic changes and implement massive projects when there is an urgent need to avert disaster. And on the smaller scale, it is showing us the power of local communities to respond to crisis and protect the vulnerable.

These trends must both come into play if we are to meet the growing demand for support for vulnerable young people. It is time for the government to recognise the work of charities and community organisations – as well as their unique ability to respond in times of crisis – by urgently acting to plug funding gaps and ensure they can carry on. And once the virus is contained and the lockdown is lifted, perhaps the government could extend some of the deep-pocketed verve it has shown in recent weeks to unleash the untapped potential of the voluntary sector to meet the needs of young people crying out for support.

This blog first appeared as a guest blog for CYP Now. Read the original version here.