When coronavirus struck on the Pepys Estate, by the Thames in Deptford, it caused fear – then locals started to rally round. But there are now worries about the future. EMILY FINCH spoke to residents about their experiences.
In early March, fear spread through the Pepys Estate in Deptford when posters appeared overnight warning residents that a family had tested positive for Covid-19.
“We have been told to self-isolate, but living in our flat here we are finding this impossible to do and are having to leave our flat throughout the day. We will try our best to leave and return to the building when no one else is about.”
The hand-made signs were placed around the communal areas of Eddystone Tower, one of the three 24-storey towers which forms part of the estate, which is managed by Lewisham Homes, the council’s arms-length management organisation.
This was still during the early stages of the pandemic when face masks and anti-bacterial gel were difficult, if not impossible, to come by for most residents. The first reported Covid-19 patient in London had only been registered at Lewisham Hospital just one month before.
Worried locals shared photos of the posters on social media wondering if they were in danger of catching the disease and how they could help the infected family who hadn’t identified themselves.
“There was a big backlash. Everyone wanted to know who the family were and run them out of town,” said Moira Kerrane, a Pepys Estate resident and trustee of the estate’s community centre, which has remained open throughout the pandemic.
But Ms Kerrane saw the positive side of the posters. “We were trying to say to people that the poster is a disclosure. Now you know when you get in the lift to wear gloves and take protection for yourself,” she said.
She was also “shocked” that the family felt they had to resort to putting up posters and leaving their flat while suffering from a potentially fatal disease.
“From me, and locally, we were thinking that if there was anyone with a Covid diagnosis there had to be a team around them making sure they had shopping and access to whatever they needed and they were not left to do their own shopping,” she said.
Since the posters appeared, Ms Kerrane and her team at 2000 Community Action Centre have kept the shutters open to ensure locals have access to food, medication and emergency support.
The usual events and facilities have been pared back. There is no elderly gardening club, no cafe or board game evenings where teenagers meet with the estate’s elderly residents to play cards.
Ms Kerrane said the centre’s board of trustees decided to continue operating “on a Covid restriction”.
“We allowed residents to come in if they needed emergency help or to talk to us. Some people needed to use our computers to download and print school meal vouchers,” she said.
When two families told her that they needed smartphones to get in touch with the council’s social care team, Ms Kerrane posted on the centre’s social media page and found phones through a friend in Nottingham.
“We took to calling seniors who were isolated and a couple of times we saw them through the window and made them a cup of tea,” she said.
But the estate didn’t always have community centres where residents feel comfortable asking for help. Ms Kerrane became involved in community work after the birth of her son 13 years ago.
“When I came here, before I had my son, I didn’t really look out of the window, I was just going to work. But when he was born, I realised there was nothing here for us to do, all the services were being cut,” she said.
She helped set up the volunteer-run Deptford Play Club, in nearby Deptford Park, where 700 toddlers and their parents have a safe space to play and socialise. The children also receive a hot meal at lunchtime.
Ms Kerrane is most worried about the youngsters in her estate whose youth centres have closed their doors because of Covid-19. A sign on the shutters of the Riverside Youth Club, a peculiar building designed to resemble an oast house, warns that it is closed “for the foreseeable future”. Ms Kerrane says she has seen a spike in the number of young people being stopped and searched by police.
“We are really lucky that we live in one of the highest-density social housing areas with very few issues with the young people on the estate. We couldn’t understand why there was so much stop and search. Their youth services have completely stopped and their schools have too. When they do go outside, they are stopped by non-uniformed police officers,” she said.
During normal times, teenagers can go into Ms Kerrane’s centre – a brick building with a large hall at the back – if they feel they are at risk of being unreasonably stopped by the police.
According to Met figures, there were 537 stop and searches in Lewisham borough in May last year. The number shot up to 1,499 in May this year. Black people were twice as likely to be searched by officers than white people during the past 12 months in the borough.
“It’s got to the point where the kids don’t know where to go,” said Ms Kerrane.
The Pepys Estate is located in a highly desirable area for property developers, just a stone’s throw from the banks of the River Thames. But the area where it sits – Evelyn Ward – faces the highest child poverty figures in the borough, according to the campaign group End Child Poverty. Their research from last year revealed that 49% of children in the ward live in poverty.
In November last year, the 2000 Community Action Centre started planning a food bank for residents and secured funding from Lewisham Homes, Travis Perkins, London Catalyst and public donations. For a monthly subscription of £3.50, locals could top up their weekly shop and volunteers would be on hand to offer advice. The aim was to create a friendly setting where residents could chat, relax and pick up food.
But everything changed when the government imposed its lockdown on the planned launch day of the Pepys Social Supermarket back in March.
“I was asked if we were going to continue and I said, ‘Of course, people need to be fed,’” said Stella Headley, the food bank’s coordinator. She is well acquainted with the estate after setting up a radio training project there in the 1990s. She was the founder of the pioneering First Love Radio, which filled the airwaves with soul and jazz.
She said: “I realised the same problems existed from 20 years ago, I thought let me get back involved and do something here. There’s still children not getting enough food, disengagement and isolation.”
Ms Headley hasn’t taken a day off over the past nine months and has been working overtime to ensure residents can pick up their food in a socially distanced manner.
There are now 136 households receiving food packages made up of deliveries from the charity FareShare, Deptford’s The Bear Church and the upmarket steak-house Hawksmoor who provide gourmet ready-made meals.
“The number of members signed up to us has quadrupled. We expected to have 10 to 15 new members per month at this stage but we have 60 to 70 members,” said Ms Headley.
“The membership is only £3.50 so they [the service users] now have money to get their child a comic or a little toy. You realise how much of a difference it actually makes. This is what keeps me coming every week,” she added.
A team of local volunteers help unload a large delivery of supplies from the food charity FareShare at 9am on Thursdays and they spend the next two days stocking shelves and organising parcels for residents who are shielding.
“The volunteers are amazing, they are committed and they have been coming in every week to take on their respective roles,” said Ms Headley.
But with lockdown easing and more people going back to full-time work the number of volunteers has started to fall off.
“I’m basically giving back to the people and I’ve lived my life giving to the people, workwise,” said Paul Thomas, a retired soldier, who lives locally. He had planned to offer survivalist training to the estate’s teenagers before lockdown.
“I was going to teach them how to survive in London without being homeless and give them a bit of military skills. When the time gets rough and you’re homeless, don’t just sit out there and do nothing. There’s a lot of places to build a temporary shelter,” he said.
Every week, Mr Thomas unpacks deliveries and lays out the tables where the food is displayed at lightning speed. He volunteers up to 12 hours of his time every Thursday and Friday.
“It can be a bit like real work and I usually have to rest the whole weekend. I’m knocked out. But I thought volunteering was a very good thing to be doing,” he said.
Last month, the workers and volunteers at 2000 Community Action Centre received a letter from Sir Kenneth Olisa, the Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London, which praised their “swift adjustment to the needs of the local community” during the pandemic. Sir Kenneth praised the centre staff and volunteers for enforcing social distancing measures in the foodbank to keep everyone safe.
But Ms Kerrane is worried about the centre’s future because their work is subsidised by hiring out their hall.
She said: “We’ll keep the centre open for as long as we can. Our main income is parties and events for 200 people and we might never see that again. It felt amazing to receive the letter for the work we have been doing locally. It’s our village and we should look after each other.”
You can donate to the Pepys Social Supermarket at gofundme.com.
This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people in SE London have responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Let us know if you have a story to tell.
EMILY FINCH is a former reporter for the Islington Tribune.
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