My thoughts and memories on homelessness and health…

Mark Gamsu’s article on inclusion in health is thought provoking indeed.

It reminded me of a time circa 1997 when I was volunteering for Shelter in Bristol. At this time a fantastic man called Tony Harvey was working with people sleeping rough. An unsung hero, much of his work ended up in national rough sleepers policy. There was also a wonderful woman called Maya Bimson, both of whom have remained an inspiration for me.

My experience of volunteering in the housing advice centre, in cold weather night shelters and in the middle of the night counting people sleeping rough in derelict buildings still stay with me and drive me now.

I got far more than I gave in those days, insights and an experience which made me really understand the need to never judge people or to create blanket policies – someone said to me today ‘one size fits no-one’ and that sums up perfectly what I learnt from listening to some of the people seeking housing advice and sleeping rough in Bristol. A man who stands out for me was a older rough sleeper who wore lots of layers of clothing, a beard and a wise look on his face. I remember him sitting down in the cold weather night shelter telling me a life story of travelling the world, it never felt right or appropriate to ask him how he ended up with no roof over his head. This was sharp contrast to the young girl I met in the same place who I am sure was younger than the minimum age limit of 16. She was a really bright girl who I can remember saying ‘I’m going to the loo to powder my nose’. Tony was a great support, advocate and champion for all of these people, I wonder what he is doing now.

Around this time, many might also remember the phenomenon of ‘Sadly Broke’, the Bradley Stoke estate on the outskirts of Bristol near to where I ran a Deposit Bond Scheme for a while (my first proper paid job). This estate epitomised the negative equity mortgage crisis. We provided a place where people who weren’t officially ‘homeless’ despite living in cars/friends sofas etc and who couldn’t afford a deposit could get some help to get a roof over their head. We worked with empty properties schemes to find landlords who might be persuaded to take a risk with the people we were working with and offer them the chance for a roof and a new start. I can remember a very sad situation of a man who had split up from his wife and could not have his children to stay unless he had a home. He found a caravan in a field and managed to get the owner to rent it to him (with a deposit bond). He had nothing and we managed to get him cutlery, crockery etc. from the various fantastic voluntary sector agencies across Bristol. This man was so grateful and so happy, I really hope things worked out for him.

What is really disappointing is that we all felt so hopeful in those days that we could positively help to reduce the numbers of people without homes, without that basic human need. All the ideas and challenges, zillions spent on pilots and strategies, all that experience and knowledge, the learning about root causes of homelessness, where has it got us?

I returned to Shelter via its website this time to find out the latest. It says on the front page

‘Every two minutes someone faces losing their home’.

In the last 24 hours that’s 720 people who could have become homeless. It’s shocking and totally unacceptable, in a country where the top 1,000 richest people in the country have more than £400bn between them (BBC/The Sunday Times).

And coming back to the link to health, people who are homeless are amongst the most vulnerable groups in our society with the highest health risks and often complex health problems. Marks example of ‘Jim and the London Homeless Pathway’ does indeed give us great insight into the complexity of health and homelessness and the reasons why we in the health world should be playing our role in tackling these challenges.

Read Marks blog here

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