Homelessness is an important issue across the country, but it’s especially pressing in Newham. Over the last few years, the borough has seen some of the highest levels of homelessness in the country.
Working out the best ways to support people who are street homeless or living in temporary accommodation has been a priority for us, but it was made even more urgent by the COVID-19 pandemic. Homeless people are in a very high-risk situation that makes them very vulnerable to COVID-19.
With the help of new funding via Public Health England, our dedicated homelessness team have been working closely with the London Borough of Newham (LBN) to bring people who were sleeping rough in from the streets and into temporary accommodation. Once we’ve engaged people in this way, we can begin to offer substance misuse support to anyone that needs it, and direct them to other forms of support they might need.
How we support people
Although we’re a part of the main Newham service, our team works independently to focus completely on the needs of the people we support. We work closely with other homelessness teams in the borough to take referrals, including the Single Homeless Project (SHP) and the London Borough of Newham homelessness team. But we also go out all around the borough to engage directly with people who are sleeping rough. Once we’ve done an assessment and made sure we can take their case, we can work to get them the support that’s right for them.
Some people have particularly complex cases, for example if they’re injecting, or sex working, or if they have unmanaged mental or physical health ailments. That’s why we address the medical side of things as well as the psychosocial side, so that we can support people with their physical and mental wellbeing. We’re able to prescribe opiate substitution medication to anyone that needs it, but we also have our own psychologists, for example.
The challenges we face
Our biggest challenge is when people find it difficult to engage with the service and the support it offers. Some people have been homeless or misusing substances for a long time. Change can be scary, and when you combine that with mental health ailments or bad experiences they’ve had in the past, people can struggle to break old patterns. Some people dip in and out of support. One minute you’ll see them regularly, then they’ll drop off the grid and stop coming to appointments.
A lot of it comes down to trust. Some of the people we work with have been homeless for a while, and they don’t believe or trust you as a professional. In the past they might have had issues where they weren’t being listened to, and now you’re willing to listen, but they don’t know that. Our aim is to make sure that they know we’re here to listen and to help.
How we build trust and address our challenges
Once people get to know you and trust you, they usually engage and do really well. It’s about giving people that flexibility, allowing trust to build slowly. We need to show that we won’t give up on someone just because they’ve missed an appointment, or fallen off their prescription, or even if they’ve lost their temper with us personally. Sometimes people do get frustrated and they can take that out on us, but once they realise that we really mean what we say, they engage a lot more.
We also try and get out to see people outside the service as much as we can. If someone hasn’t turned up for appointment, we’ll try and go to them to make sure they’re okay. We’ve run clinics and done outreach in hostels as well, so it’s not all about them coming to see us.
Our partnerships are also a big help. By working closely with other organisations and teams, we can help people to get support in all the areas of their life they might be struggling with. We can also share what we’ve learned with other organisations. For example, we work closely with the police outreach team to help them better support people who are sex working.
It all comes back to that idea of building trust between people who are homeless and the networks in place to help them. No one comes into this world planning on becoming street homeless or doing sex work or misusing substances. We want to help people embrace change and show them that breaking old patterns can help them in the long term.
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