Mark Leonard on ‘Homeless healthcare in England – how the experience of homelessness makes a difference.’

I feel that my shared experience of homelessness makes a difference, I can empathise with my clients which can put them at ease, making it easier to support them.

Adapted from full article first published December 2019 by Mark Leonard, Homeless Health Case Worker, Groundswell in the magazine of Feantsa ‘Homeless in Europe’ (page 7-8).

Poor health and the experience of homelessness go hand in hand. In 2018 two people experiencing homelessness died every single day in England and Wales, and nearly one third of these deaths were caused by treatable conditions. In my job as Homeless Health Case Worker at Groundswell, I see the people behind these numbers and the social factors that are a barrier to accessing and benefiting from healthcare. We support people to get their health problems addressed and under control, to help people on their journey out of homelessness, but it’s not easy.

For example, if you’re rough sleeping finding a safe spot to sleep is usually a higher priority than going to see a Doctor. Using drugs and alcohol is frowned upon by society, but often used to relieve the anxiety and difficulties of rough sleeping; however, this is another barrier to accessing healthcare. It’s still complicated for those sofa surfing or living in hostels – with delays in benefit payments causing stress or an untreated leg ulcer physically stopping someone from being able to walk, all reasons why someone might not be addressing their health issues.

Groundswell is a homelessness charity specialising in healthcare – both physical and mental health. The charity’s vision is of an equal and inclusive society, where the solutions to homelessness come from the experience of people who are or have been homeless. My journey with Groundswell started nearly two years ago, when I was slowly getting my life back on track and staying off the alcohol, but it was tough as I was living in a wet hostel, I knew it could lead me back to drinking. My key worker suggested I started volunteering, so I went for the interview with Groundswell to join the Homeless Health Peer Advocacy (HHPA) training programme.

I started the six-week programme in early 2018. The training kept me focused and driven to what I wanted to achieve which was ultimately being a paid worker in the homelessness sector – which I have been since August this year.

Groundswell’s unique – we focus solely on healthcare, physical and mental. But also, because all volunteers and two thirds of all staff have lived experience of homelessness; from rough sleeping to living in a hostel setting. I feel that my shared experience of homelessness makes a difference, I can empathise with my clients which can put them at ease, making it easier to support them.

HHPA has two main parts:

1) One to one peer advocacy – engagements with individuals experiencing homelessness, building relationships to support them to attend health appointments and engage with health services. Providing practical support such as travel fares, telephone reminders and accompaniment to appointments. In addition, we focus on building the skills and confidence to enable clients to access health services independently in the future.

2) Health Promotion In-Reach – we facilitate regular events at homelessness services to engage their service users. Activities include building relationships with potential new clients, raising awareness of specific health issues and bringing in health professionals.

After I graduated, I volunteered for around eighteen months. Groundswell really values the lived experience of homelessness, but this often means volunteers and staff can have difficult backgrounds or situations. During my time volunteering I was fortunate to be supported by Groundswell’s Progression Manager, gaining experience and building my confidence which prepared me to apply for paid job. I was over the moon to be offered a job working for Groundswell, I now work across several of Groundswell’s homeless health projects in London.

From the day I joined Groundswell as a trainee Peer Advocate I knew I could go to anyone – staff or volunteers, everyone has time to listen and time for a chat. I’m proud to work for Groundswell and be part of a team that really does change lives.

You can ready Mark’s full article in ‘The Magazine of Feantsa – Homeless in Europe Winter 2019 – 2020′ page 7-8’.