When I look back over the last 18 months, there’s no denying it’s been tough for everyone. The whole world has felt like it has been in perpetual state of crisis. I am so proud of our teams who have worked tirelessly to provide lifesaving support in the most difficult of circumstances. But it’s not over yet… with the winter months upon us and the pandemic rolling on, the most vulnerable in society are again facing the most challenging of times and we are once again gearing up to provide additional levels of support.
When we went into the pandemic, the homeless sector was already dealing with staffing shortages. Our pool of candidates had reduced, it had become harder to recruit and our teams were often a person or two down. But we were under more pressure than ever before, the housing crisis and austerity had contributed to greater levels of homelessness, we were supporting increasing numbers of people and many of them were new to the streets. Then as the pandemic hit, demand increased further, we began to see the impact of people losing their jobs, of freelance people left with no work and then of furlough ending and evictions starting again. Added to this as health services reached capacity and Covid changed how people could access services, we saw increased levels of health inequality as vulnerable people struggled to receive support for physical and mental ill health.
Throughout all of this, our teams have risen to the challenge. As a small charity delivering frontline services we are able to think creatively about how we can adapt to provide better levels of support. In March 2020 we were able to respond quickly and innovate our services to keep our clients safe in a swiftly changing situation, we operated on a 24-hour crisis support basis and our staff literally put their lives at risk to protect the most vulnerable. Over the last couple of months, as the restrictions of the pandemic have eased somewhat, we have again adapted our service from crisis outreach and supportive in-reach to once again being able to open our centre for walk in support.
The pandemic was hugely stressful for everyone, but for individuals facing homelessness, many of whom were already living with trauma, poor mental & physical health and isolation, times became tougher still. We are now seeing the impacts of an increase in drug and alcohol use, increased levels of mental ill health and the effects of long-term isolation. As we move into winter, these vulnerabilities will be exacerbated by colder weather and seasonal illnesses such as flu, coughs & colds. This year it is colder earlier than usual which means we are potentially facing a longer and harsher winter with more devastating effects. For the next few months we will be running the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) in partnership with Tower Hamlets Street Outreach Team and the Local Authority. With the average life expectancy for homeless people at 44 for men and 42 for women compared with 76 and 81 for the general population, this vital service will help to keep people safe and prevent loss of life throughout winter.
As an organisation we are ready for whatever the next few months throw at us. The pandemic led to us building stronger local partnerships, we coped with the increased demand on our services by working more closely with other organisations and a wider number of local authority services. These partnerships mean that we can take a more holistic approach to mental and physical health and can offer a wider range of services aimed at reducing health inequalities. Our Health Hub model, which we have been delivering since March 2021, offers Covid & Flu vaccines as well as support to register with a GP, a chance to speak to NHS professionals about health concerns, the Covid vaccine, HIV and STI screening from Positive East and Hep C testing via the Hep C Trust.
In addition to this, our existing services remain effective and busy, we continue to provide support around harm reduction and have regular dental treatment and mobile X-rays onsite. We have also had the opportunity to extend the reach of services, we have launched our Routes2Roots Hospital Discharge Project into a second hospital in Hackney, expanded our Outreach Psychotherapy Team and now have a dedicated Reset Navigator Team to engage with individuals who have experienced rough sleeping and substance use. These extended services not only mean that we are able to provide better all-round health support but also that we can have more contact with more people, reducing their levels of isolation and checking in on their general wellbeing. Something that will prove vital in the months ahead.
Our teams are still under pressure, just like the NHS and the emergency services, we are feeling the impact of a long 18 months, of staff shortage & fatigue, we are worried about what’s to come, about new variants, and the winter. We feel the injustice of the treatment of the people who are homeless in our community. At the start of the pandemic people were taken to hotels, kept safe, fed and supported. An injection of funds and the ‘Everyone in’ policy showed just how many people we could support, as a sector we have learnt a lot from the last 18 months and have seen positive change as a result, but we still need long term funding and investment to enact real, lasting change for people experiencing homelessness in the UK.
We need to see people as people, not as statistics, we need to recognise that rough sleeping is the crisis and winter poses even more threats to life. But we are up for the challenge, we will work our hardest to keep people safe, fed, warm and healthy while working with them towards a happy, independent future.