Rob Edgar, Groundswell peer researcher and London Homeless Health Programme board member who has lived experience of homelessness, writes about his work to support people who are homeless to access health services.
“I came to be a homeless health peer advocate after a chance encounter with one of the other residents who was also staying in my hostel. He was doing some volunteering with a charity in Vauxhall called Groundswell, a charity that I had heard nothing about before I started volunteering with them. It was just before Christmas and I was already four month sober and looking to keep up the good work that I had done on myself but knowing that the “festive season” was just around the corner and that this was going to be a challenging time.
My friend told me that one of the keys to successfully staying sober was to keep myself busy. I took the plunge. I called the number and volunteered my services and enrolled on Groundswell’s six-week training program.
Six weeks does not sound like much time at all but how wrong was I. I had only gone and signed up to the one charity that gives everybody the maximum amount of training in six weeks. Not good at the time but the payoff in the end was life changing for me. The hardest part to begin with was the commitment to a regular routine, but this was the cornerstone of everything thereafter. With the routine I gained a great sense of purpose, and pride in myself. My confidence soared. For the first time in a very long time I was given the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than just me, and something that was not only changing my life but changing other people’s lives too. I would be helping people who were homeless to access health care, dental services and supporting them to register with their GP. It soon became clear to me how being homeless affects your physical and mental health.
I saw first-hand the obstacles that people have to go through to access health services.
Not only the difficult unfamiliar places like hospitals and how challenging they are to navigate through for people who are homeless. But also the problems in getting to and from the hospital. This would be where I would come in. I would accompany people to their appointments. And try and make the process as smooth and uncomplicated as I could.
For many of the people I was supporting the first barrier was getting to the hospital. It sounds so simple but they needed to find the money for transport, often the cost for a £1.50 bus ticket. They also needed emotional support for the journey, someone to sit with and talk to them about what they were likely to face in their appointment. This can help reduce fear and anxiety. The key to helping is to go though it with them but allowing them to make all the decisions themselves. This is where they gain self-respect and growth, so hopefully they feel more confident in doing it themselves the next time around.
Not only would I see the change in people but others could see the change in me too. This process worked two ways by supporting others to support themselves and letting me grow and achieve my full potential. So by investing a bit of time in people and with the tools I had gained, and the cost of a bus ticket, we would be slowly but surely helping people who are affected by homelessness to start to address their own health needs.
More recently at Groundswell, we have been holding focus groups with more than 100 people who are homeless on behalf of Healthy London Partnership’s London Homeless Health Programme. We heard first-hand from people about their experiences of accessing and using health services in London. We’ve now published our final report ‘More than a statistic’ and their voices come out loud and clear.
Seeking input from people who are homeless is vital if we are to improve health services for them in London. I’d encourage anyone working in health services in London to read our report to understand the many ways they can support homeless people to access health services.”
About the author
Rob Edgar is a board member for the London Homeless Health Programme and works as Peer Researcher for Groundswell. Rob credits his volunteering work with Groundswell and Build on Belief as playing a key part in his own move away from homelessness.
Having spent over 20 years drifting in and out of homelessness he has used what he has learnt to support others to overcome the barriers homeless people face to improving their lives. He began volunteering with Groundswell in 2014 offering one-to-one support as a Homeless Health Peer Advocate, first specialising in supporting people diagnosed with tuberculosis. This has given him a deep understanding of the health issues homeless people face and the barriers they often meet to effective treatment. He strongly believes that homeless people have a right to have their voices heard and that this is key to improving services and creating meaningful change.
For more information about our Homeless Health programme contact Susan Harrison, Head of Health & Homeless for the NHS across London, at email@example.com