Swetha Mathan is the Digital Inclusion Project Lead at Skills Enterprise with over 7 years of experience working with vulnerable and marginalised BAME communities, supporting them in their welfare journey.
Skills Enterprise’s digital inclusion project supported over 200 EU citizens, particularly the homeless and vulnerably housed, who had no access to devices or connectivity.
In 2019, Swetha received the Voicebox café finalist award at the Festival of Learning along with Good Things Foundation for engaging traditionally excluded women to understand, celebrate and participate in democracy and public life in the UK.
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In April 2014, Skills Enterprise along with two other local charities, Bonny Downs Community Association and the NewWay project, launched a day centre for homeless and vulnerably housed adults in Newham. Our outreach team provided a wide range of year round support services that helped people move out of crisis, build resilience and successful transition into their new life away from the streets.
The day centre supported rough sleepers who were nationals of Romania, Lithuania and Poland. Every day was different working at the centre and the struggles the homeless people experienced were evident and agonising and we had to take steps to identify the causes and help them address the challenges. We recognised that some common causes such as language barrier, lack of basic IT skills, lack of communication due to having limited devices/ internet to none, poor lifestyle choices, vulnerable housing conditions, limited exposure to the outside world and having less access to social support were habitual among most of the vulnerable users.
It was significant that those barriers had a negative impact on them and a large number of people fell into crisis as they did not have specialist advice or support to address these challenges. This in turn, prevented them from work, accessing housing, welfare benefits, public support and healthcare system ultimately leading them into homelessness and destitution. All users were different and their needs were different to each other and some had complex needs such as immigration advice, mental health and rehabilitation and so it was important that we took a holistic approach towards tackling homelessness and destitution. We dynamically supported users into digital training, education and employment. Our service also provided them access to laptops, digital devices, housing advocacy, debt/benefits advice, job search support, help with new/lost NI number and help with lost/renewal of IDs.
On 23 June 2016, the UK voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. Following the exit from the EU, the transitional period recognised EU citizens’ rights to enter and remain in the UK. During this period, the EU Settlement Scheme was set up allowing EU citizens to register for their right of residence in the UK. Since the scheme was launched Skills Enterprise was a core consortium member supporting users with their settlement applications through our digital assistance programme. We offered specialist digital support and guidance for EU citizens who accessed our homeless day centre. Users had no access to digital devices thus putting them at risk, as accesses to digital resources were essential for the application process. Their lack of basic IT skills either prevented them from making applications or made the application process complicated and arduous as the application process involved filing online form, creating email account, verifying documents though mobile apps, uploading documents/ photograph and confirming email communications. Supporting them through the application process highlighted the need for digital training and so we set up digital hubs within the day centre where users we allowed to browse the laptops, explore the internet and learn the basics of IT. The outcomes were amazing as the users were able to break their barriers and our digital hub created a positive environment for them to be creative and progressive.
The pandemic has greatly highlighted the disadvantages of digital exclusion in the community. We partnered up with the Good Things Foundation to tackle the digital gap by providing digital devices to the vulnerable people along with data connectivity to keep them socially engaged and away from isolation during the lockdown. It was also identified that a number of Europeans struggled to make their online applications due to having no access to digital devices and data connectivity. Mr. M Serban, a Romanian living in Newham was in a temporary accommodation provided by the council and was unaware of the settlement scheme due to his language barriers and not having access to digital devices. His health conditions limited him from going out during the lockdown and stopped him from getting help with his application. With limited knowledge of using devices he was unable to use the device and thus never progressed with his online application. During the pandemic we supported 60 vulnerable users access resources and information on the EU Settlement Scheme but there are a large number of people out there who might have had similar experience or is struggling to ask for help due to multiple barriers. The deadline of June 30, 2021 has not been favourable to all such people and we are concerned that the digital exclusion among these vulnerable groups were not given alternative routes to the application process, eliminating a large number of EU citizens and the wider communities they live in.
During our experience working with the Homeless team we also partnered up with a wide range of community organisations including CGL, Praxis, Thames Reach, Catch 22, Salvation Army, Crisis, NHS Transitional Practice and volunteers to help people overcome their crisis situation. The outreach project has helped and supported more than two hundred users since 2018. We are proud that Skills Enterprise had become a consortium member once again with The Renewal Programme along with other organisations to help Newham residents stay settled in Newham and apply for their settlement before the 30 June 2021 deadline.
Although organisations are working tremendously towards encouraging people to apply for their status, it is important that the organisations focus on the barriers and come up with solutions to address them in their own initiative. Since the EUSS involves a digital status, it is important that organisations support users into digital trainings and provide continuous support to manage their needs. Lack of digital skills and language barriers could impose risk in managing and accessing their digital status as a large number of people struggle to access the internet on a daily basis.
At Skills Enterprise we are working with local councils and partner organisations to support people with digital devices and trainings and we believe educating and empowering the community is the only way to address digital exclusion. We look forward to extend our services to our community and continue to promote our focus on addressing digital exclusion among the vulnerable, so that our community breaks the barriers and feels positive and empowered living in a safe and inclusive environment.
Skills Enterprise’s mission is to break the barriers that lead to poverty and social exclusion addressing a range of complex needs.