Maff Potts: "The cost-of-living crisis is impacting on people’s ability to connect"

Maff Potts, founder of Camerados talks about the impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on connections, and how by prioritising them, charities can make a difference.


There’s something about the word ‘crisis’ – it makes people start making lasagne and handing out sleeping bags. But if you think about Covid, our most recent collective crisis, what we remember is videos of people dancing on balconies, the chats with neighbours when we dropped off their shopping and zoom calls with friends when we were stuck inside.

It’s the same with the cost-of-living crisis. People need food and warmth but, just as importantly, they need connection. It’s what gives them that most underrated of commodities: confidence. And people need confidence to take that first step out of a crisis or, sometimes, just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The opposite of confidence is that corrosive narrative in your head as things go downhill. You find yourself putting a negative slant on everything, particularly on yourself. Your interactions with others are affected. You might start avoiding people altogether.

The link between social connection, confidence and resilience was my biggest take-away from 20 years in the homelessness sector and I believe it’s true in every type of crisis. It’s what’s behind the success of groups like AA and SMART Recovery and it’s what prompted me to start Camerados, a movement that is all about mutuality and social connection. We’ve had people come into our public living rooms saying they have nothing left to live for who leave a couple of hours later feeling just better enough to get through another day. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

The cost-of-living crisis is impacting on people’s ability to connect. The shame and guilt that people can feel at not being able to pay for the basics can cause them to withdraw from others and money worries mean many are socialising less. People’s confidence is taking a knock. And interventions, however well meaning, can often chip away at their confidence further. You wouldn’t have trestle tables or strip lights at home, but you often find them in spaces that are used in times of crisis. People can be asked to fill out forms or be hit with a set of rules when what they really need is to feel trusted and welcome. Of course, there might be necessary organisational procedures - especially when there’s funding involved - but these should be done out of sight. Do the data gathering back of house. Memorise the risk assessment and fill out the forms later. Get some comfy sofas and string up the fairy lights.

At a homelessness organisation I used to run – one of the biggest in the country - we had one death every sixteen days in the hostels. Each one was investigated and every time it was the same story: a personal crisis followed by a period of intense isolation. I’ve seen rough sleepers become suicidal when they were resettled because they had lost their support network on the streets. But when people had company and a purpose they didn't return to the hostels. They didn’t overdose. The times when I could see what we were doing was working was when it was all about purpose and connection. An inter-hostel football match when goal-scorers were lifted onto their teammates’ shoulders. A scheme where rough sleepers were learning to drive a canal boat. And, with Camerados, when a man who had been visiting Sainsburys three times a day just to be around others found connection in a public living room. Or when a woman who was struggling to leave her house after a divorce and losing her job regained her confidence in a public living room. She’s set up one of her own now. I’m not saying the practical stuff doesn’t matter – of course it does. But it doesn’t work without that vital human connection.

Sometimes people can be reluctant to prioritise connection. They worry that it’s time consuming and that it can lead to being burdened with other people’s problems. They think they will be expected to fix people when it’s much easier to just hand them a food parcel and send them on their way. Actually, people don’t want to be fixed by others, even if that was possible. What they need is to feel valued and welcome and connected to other people – even if it’s just for a short time. It’s the same boost we get when we chat to the hairdresser or to someone on the bus – those loose tie connections that we take for granted but which enrich our lives so much.

We’ll always need the practical stuff and to lobby for change so that the shameful need for food banks and warm spaces no longer exists, but we should never neglect the human element. It’s what can make the biggest difference of all.

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