GOING THE EXTRA MILE
I t ’ s no wonder , when you think about it , that so many people who are street homeless suffer from poor mental health , poor physical health and an addiction to illicit substances . Not helped by the typical British summer that we have experienced this year , they are constantly trying to keep warm and dry , living in constant fear of being moved on or being abused by passers-by , fearful of their only possessions being stolen , and constantly being judged .
The first lockdown last year led to local authorities seeking places for the street homeless to stay , keeping them safe from the effects of COVID-19 . The government released £ 105m to support rough sleepers into interim housing and a further £ 16m to support those in this accommodation to access help for substance misuse issues . The fact that it took a global pandemic for anybody to appreciate the physical and mental health risks associated with being homeless raises certain questions for me . I would suggest that the risks arising from prolonged poor mental health caused by a lack of secure accommodation are far greater than catching coronavirus , and have been affecting this group for far longer .
London and the surrounding areas account for over a quarter of all rough sleeping in England . Before the pandemic hit , figures showed
Homelessness doesn ’ t discriminate , which is why making the effort to properly engage with ‘ hard to reach ’ groups pays real dividends , says Wendy Nee
that a disproportionate number of these rough sleepers in London were from Central and Eastern European countries , accounting for almost 30 per cent . This number could have been significantly higher if those of unknown nationality were included , but through fear of being sent home this information is not always disclosed . In trying to tackle homelessness in London and the South East , there needs to be a specific focus on this community – but this presents a unique set of challenges .
FOLLOWING A DREAM As part of the government ’ s COVID-19 housing initiative , which must be welcomed despite a delayed start , I was introduced to four Eastern European men referred by the local authority . These men had lived in the woods for the last six years . They worked when they could , for cash-in-hand jobs paying below the minimum wage , and drank alcohol every night to help them sleep in the cold conditions – largely keeping themselves hidden and unnoticed . They were in poor physical health , the eldest being seventy-one with long-term heart failure .
These men were reasonably well-educated and had come to Britain separately to improve their life chances . Somehow , they all found each other through the large community of Eastern Europeans in similar situations . They would congregate in parks and drink cheap , strong Polish lager until they slept where they fell . The larger group gradually drifted away from the remaining four – they either went home , moved to the next town , or in some cases , fell ill and died .
They followed the dream of coming to Britain , but it did not turn out how they expected . They had all suffered varying degrees of childhood trauma , abuse , relationship and family breakdown and poverty . Some experienced xenophobic attitudes in both their workplaces and communities , leading to yet more of the anxiety and depression they were trying to escape . Each one began to use more and more alcohol to ease
' The more help they accepted the more they understood that people cared . This in itself improved their feeling of selfworth , leading to improved mental health outcomes .'
10 • DRINK AND DRUGS NEWS • SEPTEMBER 2021 WWW . DRINKANDDRUGSNEWS . COM