Caseworker and former volunteer Dennis Rogers receives an MBE in the Queen’s 2019 New Year’s Honours list. Just a couple of days after the honours were announced Dennis was with one of his regular clients who, in response to all the help she’s had from him, said ‘you should get a medal from the Queen or something’. ‘Believe it or not’, Dennis replied, ‘I’m actually getting one this year’.
Dennis (second from the left) celebrates with colleagues in 2016 when Groundswell were awarded ‘Overall Winner’ at the GSK impact awards.
Dennis has been awarded the MBE for using his past experience to become a role model for homeless people. Starting as one of Groundswell’s first Homeless Health Peer Advocates (HHPA) back in 2010 and soon after becoming a member of staff; Development Manager Becky managed to sit down with the man who can’t stand being stuck indoors. They talk about the one keyworker Dennis listened to, how being stabbed was the turning point to getting his life on track and why peer advocacy works when you’re homeless.
Becky: You’ve been involved with Groundswell for over eight years can you tell me a bit about your life before Groundswell?
Dennis: I was homeless roughly about 10 years, but I done that in two hits. So the first time I was homeless and come off the streets I never dealt really with my alcoholism, you know I sort of white knuckled it…I got into work, I was a health care assistant, looked after lots of people with learning disabilities…. I then ended up back on the street…for another 5 years. I never went into hostels, because round in them days the rooms in hostels were dreadful.
Becky: So it felt like sleeping on the streets was the better option?
Dennis: Yes. And plus, because of my alcoholism, I think the service charge was something silly like £7 a week. But to me, where my head was at that time, that was £7 worth of cans. As time went on I was getting pneumonia. My body just couldn’t take no more and I moved into an 8 bedder, self-contained hostel.
Becky: So this was at the point you kind of thought your body couldn’t take it anymore?
Dennis: Yeah I just couldn’t… the worst pain of my life that was.
I actually fell into another job…doing night shifts. All I was doing was working, sleeping, working, sleeping, and I was paying my rent to the hostel. So that was fine until they started putting me on day shifts, and I didn’t want to go on day shifts because I know all the other tradesmen and labourers all went to the pub at lunch time. And I begged and begged them not to put me on that shift, but obviously I needed the money. I tried for a while, but, I weakened.
Becky: It seemed like you were pretty determined, you knew what you needed to try and get away from the alcohol.
Dennis: I though oh great I’ll go out and look for another job but how hard that was. Then I got myself in debt with the housing benefit, cos I owed the hostel, I started drinking again…I should have been kicked out but they saw something in me. I was there for 13 months and then I was given a flat because I was working. I got into my flat, keyworker come with me, I lasted 2 hours in there. I couldn’t cope.
Becky: Why do you think that was?
Dennis: Loneliness…and I didn’t know anyone in the area…I can’t stay indoors – even now…How I coped with my loneliness was to bring back 13 other rough sleepers, back to my flat. So that went on for a while and then I got to know all the drinkers in the area that I was living in. I then got a new keyworker and she was very stern but fair. And she was Irish that helped because I’ve got Irish background. And you know she said I’m here to help you, but you’ve got to tell me how I can help you. I was already shouting out for help to go to rehab, detox in rehab because I was sick of being sick.
I crawled to my off-licence to get my crate…I had to drink 3 or 4 cans before I could walk…So I though nice sunny day, go off to the park. And gradually some of my drinking friend’s found me and then a stranger came along, asked to join. He had a pop at one of our mates, and all I did was tap him on the arm and say you know leave him alone, and, actually he stabbed me in the lung. And from that day, to this, I’ve not a drink.
That was what it took… I ended up in intensive care, I was in there a good while. My keyworker said let me once the Doctors are talking about discharging you. Because she knew and I knew, if I went back home, I would be back drinking again…She came down, she managed to persuade the Doctors to keep me an extra 3 or 4 days. And in that time she got me a rehab and I done a year rehab.
My keyworker and I were talking over lunch I said I want to start work with the homeless and I said I wanna be as good as you. And she said no I want you to be better than me…I started volunteering. I then started up a Saturday club… I was so terrified…But I gave it a go, and I said I’ll do it a little while and 5 years later I was still doing it.
Becky: It seems like a lot of people still remember you from that Saturday Club.
Dennis: And then, Groundswell asked me to come for an interview for the Homeless Health Peer Advocacy (HHPA) and that’s how I started.
Becky: What do you think is unique about being a volunteer for Groundswell?
Dennis: They gave us, the volunteers, trust. Because trust is a big thing… when I was drinking, I lost everybody’s trust…Obviously at first I was doing it for me, but then I was seeing I was doing it for other people.
Becky: As you said like to keep busy and are always running across London – well not actually running! If you had to summarise your job to someone, what do you do?
Dennis: I encourage homeless people to address their health issues. Right so a lot of homeless people might have, between 6 and 10 health issues.
Becky: What are the top 3 challenges you find when you start working with someone that they’re facing as a homeless person?
Dennis: The appointments early in the morning, before the chemists open. If they’re on methadone…they gotta go to the chemist. That is a big challenge in itself. If anyone needs to go to A&E and they’re on methadone…the Doctors always take too long to sign it over…You know, our people in our circle aren’t very good at hanging around for things so then they just go off and discharge themselves. And then sitting in the waiting rooms, if their hygiene ain’t that good – people start moving away. Even sometimes Doctors don’t give eye contact, they just look at the computer.
Becky: Why do you the peer advocacy part of what Groundswell does is so important? It’s quite unique.
Dennis: Because we still speak their language.
Becky: Do you think if you had someone that was a peer advocate that was coming to you many years ago?
Dennis: I would’ve come off the street and gone into rehab earlier.
Becky: So onto your MBE, what does it mean to you to be recognised in this way?
Dennis: I was quite shocked, from being homeless and I’ve got dyslexia and things like that. I never dreamt ever that I’d get something like this. I was gobsmacked…even if it encourages one homeless person to see there is change, it can happen.
Becky: Exactly, and when it was recognised you were described as a role model. Do you see yourself as that?
Dennis: Well it’s like I looked up to Jimmy [the late Jimmy Carlson OBE who was a volunteer and trustee of Groundswell who had previously been homeless]. He was my role model. I feel privileged, I’m very honoured with it all. I’m really glad that Groundswell gave me the chance you know, I was prepared to volunteer volunteer volunteer, I didn’t think no one was going to employ me, but I like what I do.