Working with people with complex needs during COVID-19

Look Ahead is supporting thousands of vulnerable clients through the coronavirus crisis with the help of technology and strong community partnerships


Image: Istock

Irmani Smallwood

Executive Director of Business Development, Look Ahead

Looking back to early March, it felt like there was little warning of what was about to happen. Cheltenham Festival went ahead on 10 March with more than 250,000 people in attendance. On 11 March, the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic. From Look Ahead’s perspective, our immediate concern was the health and wellbeing of the 7,500 vulnerable people we support, and our 1,000-plus staff. So, what did we do?

Crisis management

Our Business Continuity Plan kicked in; our core team from across the organisation moved smoothly into crisis management to communicate the plan to customers, staff and external partners and commissioners. Monthly senior team meetings became daily calls to review data and resourcing across the business. There were many late nights focused on ensuring premises and staff were able to work in a way which enabled social distancing in schemes, and that customers who needed to shelter in place, could do so in a self-contained environment.

“It was only during this period that our last three years of investment in IT and online performance data proved its crucial worth”


It was only during this period that our last three years of investment in IT and online performance data proved its crucial worth. We were able to see via dashboards exactly where our staffing shortages were on a shift by shift basis, enabling senior operational managers to move staff from site-to-site to ensure staffing levels were kept as safe as possible. This was particularly important across our 10 services that are registered with the Care Quality Commission. Even when staff absence reached a peak of 18%, we were able to maintain staffing levels thanks to many dedicated staff working overtime and our bank of locum staff.

Technology also enabled us to keep in touch with customers in the community, through calls, WhatsApp groups and Zoom. Staff welfare resources were immediately deployed to make sure the wellbeing of colleagues was front and centre of all our planning.

“The power of community spirit was palpable”

New challenges

Other challenges were new to us. Customers in homelessness hostels and supported housing services were finding it very difficult to get enough food to eat, as were isolated customers in the community. The power of community spirit was palpable. We put out a call to local partner organisations and within a day had arranged for the first delivery of 1.5 tonnes of food to be distributed across services in need.

Charities including Fareshare, Felix Project, Crisis, City Harvest, Compliments of the House and Pecan Foodbank answered the call. They were joined by corporate partners too – Deliveroo gave us 500 hot meals from Nandos for our homelessness services in Southwark, and Mr Lee’s Noodles provided 1,000 packs of noodles for customers in East London. Crussh, Tourvest Retail Services, Pret a Manger, Morrisons, Greggs, Coal Office and Beigel Bake also generously donated food.

Mr Lee's Noodles donated 1,000 packs of noodles to Look Ahead customers in East London

“It would not have been possible to protect our most vulnerable customers and help so many off the streets without our partners”

PPE solution

PPE, usually only used in a small minority of services, was required in many more settings. This proved a major challenge for us and everyone working in health and social care. Thanks to excellent partnerships with local Clinical Commissioning Groups, local authorities and the Greater London Authority, we managed to keep our staff kitted out safely throughout.

We are also about to issue free face masks for all staff for use on public transport, with lockdown easing. Land Aid reached out to fund £10,000-worth of provision of equipment, food and PPE.


In late March, we were asked by the GLA to set up two hotel services to help bring rough sleepers off the streets. We set up the first service with 72 hours’ notice and are now housing 250 people in hotels in Croydon and Waterloo with our partners Holiday Inn Express, Palm Holdings and AGS.

We are currently working to ensure all 250 people have a sustainable and safe onward housing option – no small feat in the current climate.

There is much for us to reflect on and learn from how we managed during COVID-19. But one of the biggest lessons has been the fact it would not have been possible to protect our most vulnerable customers and help so many off the streets without our partners.

New, deeper relationships have been forged through these times, and we hope to build on these still further as we all move to a new version of normal.

Look Ahead provides specialist support, care and housing services for 7,500 people with complex and multiple needs, including mental health issues, homelessness, learning disabilities, domestic abuse and young care leavers.

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