7 February 2022
In this blog for HIV Testing Week, Mark Leonard, Groundswell Homeless Health Caseworker, gives an overview of what HIV is, how we test for it and the huge difference peer support can make.
My name is Mark Leonard, and I am a Homeless Health Caseworker for Groundswell. Using a peer support approach, I support people experiencing homelessness to access healthcare. This includes taking people to health appointments and advocating for them if needed.
For the past two years, I’ve spent two days a week working with the UCLH Find & Treat team, who visit people experiencing homelessness in London hostels and day centres. The team focus on blood-borne viruses which include Hepatitis C, Hepatitis B and HIV, and sexually transmitted infections such as Syphilis, Gonorrhoea, Chlamydia and Trichomonas.
When someone experiencing homelessness is being tested for HIV, I can offer them peer support. This means if they have any questions regarding treatment or if they need support getting to their appointments, a peer (someone with experience of homelessness) will be able to help guide them through their treatment journey.
What is HIV?
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is ‘a virus that damages the cells in your immune system and weakens your ability to fight everyday infections and disease. There’s currently no cure for HIV, but there are very effective drug treatments that enable most people with the virus to live a long and healthy life’ (source: NHS.uk).
The main symptoms in the first instance are similar to flu:
- Swollen glands
- Muscle pain
- Joint pain
With treatment, most people living with HIV will live a near-normal lifespan, especially if the virus is diagnosed early. That’s why it’s really important we test for it, and take that testing to people who are experiencing homelessness and frequently face barriers to getting healthcare.
Testing and treatment
The blood-borne viruses team at Find & Treat takes referrals for HIV testing from London hostels and day centres. Once we’ve received a referral, we pick a date and go to the service.
The test for HIV is quick and simple. We take a small drop of blood from someone’s finger and put it into the test. The test will tell the patient whether they are positive or negative for HIV.
You can order free tests here: freetesting.hiv
The Find & Treat team then refer the patient to their local HIV clinic for treatment and further blood tests. Treatment usually involves taking one tablet a day after food and allow people to go on to live a normal life.
U=U stands for ‘Undetectable equals Untransmittable’, meaning someone living with HIV and on effective treatment can’t pass it on.
This is backed up by robust evidence from the PARTNER and PARTNER 2 studies, which both found the virus was passed on to a sexual partner in zero cases when the person living with HIV was on effective treatment.
The important role of peer support
Having a peer like myself with experience of homelessness, at the side of someone who has found out they are living with HIV, provides huge support at a very hard moment in their life.
In my work, I feel that it’s really important to let the person breathe and take the information in, and not to rush them to get them booked into a clinic. When they’re ready, I then ask them “how do you feel about starting treatment?”. We talk about it, and take it from there.
I also find it important to stay in touch with the patient and offer ongoing support. I tend to drop in and check how they’re doing with their meds once they’re receiving treatment.
How to refer in London
If you work in a London hostel setting and would like the Find & Treat team to provide testing at your service, or if you have any questions, just email: [email protected].
Groundswell offers Homeless Health Peer Advocacy for a range of physical and mental health issues across nine central London boroughs, to find out what we can offer and how to refer click here or email: [email protected].
We have partners operating HHPA services in various parts of the country, if you would like to explore having a similar service in your area you can find out more here.