'We've changed the narrative': Pandemic positivity on the Alton Estate

By Tarah Welsh
BBC London

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Alton Estate
Image caption,
The Alton Estate in Roehampton is home to about 13,000 people

When the Alton Estate was built in the 1950s, it was designed with community living in mind. Nobody could have imagined that 70-odd years later, those living here would need to come together in the face of a worldwide pandemic.

This is the story of the mental, physical, financial and emotional impact of lockdown on one of the biggest council estates in the UK.

About 13,000 people live at the site in Roehampton, south-west London. Despite that, isolation was an issue even before the added complexity of having to stay at home.

Media caption,

The residents of the Alton Estate on their feelings of isolation during lockdown

Dermot, who lives alone on the sixth floor, says he would feel completely cut off if it wasn't for charity Regenerate-RISE delivering a weekly food parcel. This branch of the Regenerate charity targets isolated elderly people.

"I'm disabled and I've been like a prisoner in here for over 12 months now... it's like a fight every day, you've got to stay positive."

It's not just those living alone who have struggled. Emma Lewis, the head teacher of Heathmere Primary School, says shortages of essential goods started to affect shoppers before official lockdown began.

Image caption,
Head teacher Emma Lewis says her own situation made her think of how others might be affected

"My weekly shop was 50% more than it would have been three weeks previously because I couldn't get what I would normally get and I was getting substitutions.

"I thought about our families and thought, 'gosh, if their food bills are 50% more, they're not going to be able to absorb that'.

"And that got me thinking about the wider impact that this pandemic was going to have."

Image caption,
The online video call that started the community response

Emma joined the Roehampton Response Network, which started as an online video call between people living in the area. It was set up by Johnathan Palma, who works for Citizens Advice in Wandsworth.

As a result of that virtual get-together, projects were instigated to alleviate food poverty, tackle isolation and promote mental health.

One of those projects was the Roehampton Community Box. Sports charity Rackets Cubed and youth and children's charity Regenerate put together boxes of essentials to get families through the long months ahead.

In the first week they distributed 57 boxes of food and toiletries. At the peak, it went up to 300 boxes a week.

Image caption,
The Alton Estate has a mix of low-rise and high-rise buildings

Emma says that at first there was "a lot of trepidation" and they had to clarify the scheme was not a food bank.

"There were some families that couldn't quite believe it initially and others were reluctant because they didn't want charity.

"One mum said she'd only been having one meal a day because the food was going to the children and not her, so what a lifeline the community box was."

In this area of London, unemployment has increased during the pandemic.

In January 2020, there were 385 people claiming unemployment benefits. A year later, there were 1,100. A lack of childcare facilities coupled with the high number of key workers living on the estate had a big impact on families.

Alicia Lotsu, who works as a nurse, was employed full time before the pandemic but had to cut her hours when after-school childcare provision closed.

"People like me, who are getting paid once a month, you have to make everything last for the entire month. Once a week they [the community box scheme] give us a box with a few bits and pieces to help us get through the struggles we're facing."

Analysis: Tarah Welsh

It has been well documented that those in more deprived and ethnically diverse communities have been at greater risk from the virus and in a time of such darkness, it's been hard to find the positives.

But as soon as you step on to the Alton Estate you feel a sense of hope. In every corner of this massive site there are people changing the lives of their neighbours in all sorts of ways.

Among the stories of hope, of course I found stories of real suffering. People have lost jobs and livelihoods and some people are still terrified about going out because of the coronavirus but there's a sense that there's support out there from those living around them and that's been truly inspiring to witness.

Image caption,
James was "sitting doing nothing" before he was helped to get a job

Through Heathmere School, which his siblings attend, 18-year-old James was put in touch with Regenerate and helped to get a job working on coffee carts the charity opened during the pandemic. He's been a barista now for five months, and as well as giving him something to do, he can help his family to pay the bills.

He and his family found things difficult during the pandemic. The Alton Estate community has helped with more than food - different groups have worked together to identify all sorts of needs.

Image caption,
James, who works as a barista three times a week, said being able to pay "random bills" for his family has helped him cope with lockdown

"Before, I was sitting at home doing nothing because of Covid. It just put a stop to everything," he said.

"I'm actually really lucky to have found this; it helped a lot."

  • Regenerate has so far helped 11 local young people into employment
  • The Roehampton Community Box project has has now helped about 500 families
  • On 6 March, 230 people ran individual marathons in lockdown to raise money
  • More than 200 volunteers have helped with the RCB scheme
Image caption,
Orleen McIntosh says the community rallied round to help each other throughout lockdown

Orleen McIntosh cares for four children - three of her own, and her nephew who has autism.

The network has helped her become a volunteer at a community garden, and part of a team giving out bags of toys and games to families unable to go to playgroups and children's centres.

She says the pandemic has changed the area for the better.

"I was very isolated but when I joined the meeting I realised many parents were going through the same thing. We were struggling but we know we can call on someone.

"I feel like the community has really come together."

For Johnathan Palma, who has lived in the area his whole life, local people have managed to "change the narrative of Roehampton".

"All of these beautiful people have changed it from one where we were talking about crime and statistics and now we're talking about togetherness and unity, and that's built confidence in where people live and how they treat the place."

And Emma Lewis, who recently welcomed her pupils back to school after months of home learning, remains hopeful about the future: "It's really difficult at the moment still for so many families, but I really believe, in the long term, our community will be strengthened."

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