This independent study, commissioned by The Almshouse Association, seeks to understand the impact of the pandemic on almshouse charities and their residents; examine the difference almshouse charities have made; identify the lessons that can be drawn from the past two years; and highlight challenges the sector faces going forward.
The report was informed by desk research, a roundtable discussion hosted by The Almshouse Association and non-attributable telephone/on-line interviews with a variety of almshouse charities and other housing organisations.
Overall, the research showed that, like everyone, almshouse charities faced difficulties as a result of the pandemic – not least concerning support for their older and vulnerable residents, many of whom suffered from problems of loneliness. Despite the emergency restrictions and pressures on staff and volunteers, however, the almshouse sector in general proved itself resilient in the face of adversity. The vast majority of almshouse charities were able to protect their residents and continue to offer support.
The interviews with people inside and outside the sector clearly demonstrated that almshouses – big and small – have many strengths. Almshouse staff and residents reported a range of Covid-related concerns but said they were proud of the way they responded to the crisis and how they supported each other. Many cited the advantages of having a strong community ethos and strong focus on the value of independent living.
Nevertheless, the research also highlighted how the pandemic placed the spotlight on important existing challenges facing the sector, not least around how almshouse charities in general can best carry forward and adapt their longstanding purposes and unique organisational structure to a volatile and fast changing world.
- Almshouse charities were reported to offer personalised support to residents because of their size, their community nature, and being close to (and engaged with) residents. The size and close relationships with residents before the pandemic was said to make adapting to changes, including support for residents, easier.
- Interviewees most frequently mentioned loneliness and social isolation as the biggest effects of the pandemic on residents. This was not described as being unique to almshouse charities and has been noted across society. However, almshouse residents may have been particularly vulnerable because of a higher likelihood of needing to shield and/or being single.
- Many almshouse charities sought to more deeply understand resident needs and combat social isolation through regular contact with residents and Covid-secure activities. This was helped by many charities having large outdoor spaces which promoted covid-safe interactions.
- Some almshouse charities provided additional support, such as help with shopping and picking up prescriptions.
- Almshouse charities worked with other organisations throughout the pandemic. Their biggest concerns related to social care and stretched social services coming out of the pandemic. This was viewed as placing additional strains on almshouse charities and their residents, and the situation was felt to have deteriorated since the start of the pandemic.
- Most were taking lessons from the experience, which included communication with residents and the benefits of online working.
Impact of the pandemic on residents
- There were few reports of residents contracting Covid (especially pre-vaccination roll-out). Interviewees discussed the measures they took to make residents safe, including ensuring residents knew the rules, introducing social distancing measures and changing working practices.
- Some noted that (like many people) residents were very fearful of Covid and were reluctant to leave their home when lockdown ended.
- Isolation and loneliness were seen as the main impact of the pandemic on residents, as has been seen more widely. This presented challenges around mental health, residents becoming withdrawn and also some incidents of anti-social behaviour.
- The pandemic and government guidelines left residents isolated and meant that many almshouse charities were not able to offer the same level of community activities, which are valued by residents and provide opportunities for social interaction.
- Most residents were said not to have been financially affected. This was explained by low Weekly Maintenance Contributions, which were often covered, where necessary, by housing benefit. And as residents are older most did not see incomes drop due to unemployment or furlough but continued to receive their pension.
Impact of the pandemic on almshouse charities
- Almshouse charities described the way they adapted operations to government guidance:
- Some felt forgotten and complained about a lack of specific guidance and PPE, especially at the start of the pandemic.
- Some faced difficult conversations with residents regarding following the rules. Keeping residents safe was the primary concern, but rule following was a cause of friction.
- A minority faced financial challenges, largely around investment in commercial property, as well as challenges around filling voids (vacant dwellings) and maintenance works.
- A minority said that they faced no real organisational impact with staff treated as key workers.
Response of almshouse charities
- Many almshouse charities described how they contacted residents through regular telephone calls.
- Phone calls were used to assess the level of need of residents and were seen as useful ways of tackling social isolation. It was said that residents valued these conversations and for some residents they continued on a very frequent basis during the worst of the pandemic.
- Some almshouse charities also sought to tackle social isolation through newsletters and online activities (such as quizzes and coffee mornings). These were seen as valuable ways of tackling loneliness even if face-to-face meetings would have been preferred.
- Charities also noted how they benefited from better access to open spaces, due to the intrinsic design of almshouses, in contrast to many in high rise flats.
- Alongside making homes and offices Covid secure, contact with residents was used to help explain government Covid regulations and guidelines to help keep residents safe.
- Almshouse charities also provided direct support with shopping, picking up prescriptions and helping secure doctor appointments. A minority also mentioned financial assistance with grants or buying food. This support helped ensure those fearful of Covid and without wider social networks had the essentials and were kept safe.
- Some almshouse charities also worked with or signposted residents to the voluntary sector, with support through foodbanks and phone calls by other charities to tackle loneliness.
- Responses were diverse and, in some cases, little additional support was provided.
- Interviewees described the support they received, including advice from their boards, The Almshouse Association and networks of other almshouse organisations or housing providers.
- Generally, those interviewed said they had not formed new partnerships through the pandemic but worked with organisations they had known previously.
- Almshouse charities gave examples of working with other charities, notably foodbanks, but also Citizen Advice and Age UK.
- There was a mixed picture regarding local authorities, with some almshouses mentioning they had good relationships with their local council and others stating that councils did not really understand the almshouse model.
- There was real concern around social care coming out of the pandemic. It was generally felt that stretched social services presented a considerable challenge to all local residents, including those in almshouse charities.
- Interviewees gave their thoughts on successful partnership working, including raising the profile of almshouse charities locally and at a sector level; the importance of being an external facing organisation; using existing networks; and being open minded.
Benefits of being an almshouse charity during the pandemic
- Being an almshouse charity was generally felt to have helped with the sector’s response to the pandemic. The reasons given mainly reflected the perceived strengths of the sector: size of organisations, community engagement, and close relationships with residents.
- A widely held view was that almshouse charities knew their residents before the pandemic and could therefore effectively support those that needed additional assistance.
- The ethos and pastoral nature of almshouse charities was mentioned as a positive. Some also referred to the benefits of the warden system.
- There was a recognition that other community-based or specialist housing and care providers operated in a similar way.
- It was said that larger organisations would have to rely more on the systems in place rather than personal relationships, which could be more remote and less tailored to individual resident needs.
- The modest scale at which almshouse charities operated was viewed by many as important. Emphasis was also placed on pre-existing trust-based relationships, which it was said allowed almshouses to be quickly responsive and adaptable to resident needs.
- It was said by some that operating at too small a scale had downsides and that formal support, beyond that of volunteers or trustees, may be limited. It was mentioned that changes or sudden actions demanded by the pandemic would in some instances fall on the shoulders of a single person.
Lessons from the experience
- The importance of community was reinforced by the pandemic and was seen as a core identifier of the ethos and spirit of almshouse charities.
- The importance of maintaining good communication with residents was often mentioned, including understanding resident’s changing needs and expectations.
- The high levels of commitment and personal responsibility shown by the trustees during the pandemic was a feature of most almshouse charities. Ensuring that continues with the next generation of trustees was seen as particularly important.
- The issue of digital exclusion was raised in several interviews. The pandemic highlighted the extent of this. While being online was particularly important during the pandemic, addressing digital exclusion of residents was viewed as critical to take on board over the longer term.
- Digital technology was also mentioned in reference to the way that almshouse charities themselves operated. Online working was viewed as an important way of improving organisational efficiency.
- Continuity plans were viewed by some as important to crisis management. These would need to be reviewed in light of the experience of the pandemic.
- The additional support during the pandemic highlighted the need to be focused on independent living.
- Not trying to provide all services inhouse was considered an important lesson by some interviewees.
- The need for better, tailored advice from regulators (including the Charity Commission and housing and care regulators) was mentioned. A review of current regulations was perhaps a way forward.
- Networks of almshouse charities were viewed as important during the pandemic and more generally in providing practical advice and support. Support for smaller almshouse charities and recruiting trustees is important.
- Raising awareness about almshouses, especially among councils and other local organisations is often challenging. Sharing more widely the ‘lived experience’ of residents may be one way of promoting a better understanding of the sector.
- Almshouse charities as a sector may benefit from a forward-looking strategy that builds on the experience of the pandemic and more actively seeks to meet the expectations of future generations of residents and trustees.
Strengths and challenges
The research focused on the pandemic, but interviewees were also asked about the more general strengths and challenges facing the sector. These centred on:
- Providing a community as well as affordable housing for local people. The community nature of almshouse charities was mentioned frequently and was said to be highly valued by residents.
- The community dimension meant almshouse charities were able to offer additional support to residents to enable them to live independently.
- Some small almshouse charities said that being small was a benefit, which meant they could be close to their residents and agile. The sentiment was that by being small almshouse charities understood their residents and could provide support tailored to their needs.
- Others described their resources: commitment of staff, clerks or trustees, the quality of stock, and having a strong financial position.
The challenges included:
- While some almshouse charities may have resources and solid reserves others mentioned the challenge of maintaining listed buildings. This was said to be expensive given the new (and future) building and eco-regulations. Retrofitting homes was a constant financial pressure, especially given higher expectations of quality from residents and regulators.
- It was reported that some almshouse charities had failed to charge an adequate weekly maintenance contribution leaving them in a weaker financial position.
- Some interviewees noted the difficulties recruiting trustees and the need for succession planning. It was said that securing the appropriate balance of trustees is important but could be difficult.
- The small nature of the charities, especially those without staff, was felt by some to come with challenges – not least the pressures on volunteers’ time.
- It was felt that there is generally a lack of awareness and misunderstanding of almshouse charities. It was said to be necessary to continually explain what they are and what type of housing they provide.
- Some felt it was a root challenge to make sure almshouse charities were modern, fit for purpose and relevant to a fast-changing world.