The best of support for homeless people can see them move on from their health emergencies. Image: Shutterstock
As Christmas approaches I often reflect on my best and worst. The worst was definitely sitting in an all-night launderette in London’s Earl’s Court waiting for a girlfriend to come back from a party so I could spend the night with her.
She must have got waylaid because she never turned up. It was Christmas Eve of 1968 and I was 22 and hiding from the police and my wife’s solicitors, who wanted to serve me with divorce papers.
After a few hours, and with midnight approaching, I went around and looked for a party to get in to. I found one, found a young woman who wanted to go for a walk with me and perhaps go back with her. But when I returned to the party the door was locked. I had left my precious overcoat there. It was a glass door so I decided to kick it in. In fact it was not glass, though, but something called plexiglass, that cracked but did not shatter.
The door was flung open and I got my jacket but the girl had disappeared, probably due to my madness. I walked out, not sure where I could go next. Penniless and homeless, I was sure I had reached a new deeper bottom than ever before.
By the underground station a friendly policeman, who obviously didn’t know I was being sought, pointed out that I was leaving a trail of blood. Then I noticed that my right shoe was full of something wet: blood. He told me to get to the hospital as soon as possible.
I walked the mile to the hospital and was soon in casualty, as they called A&E in those days. I was stitched up and wrapped up and told to rest with my leg up for a few days. When I said that I was between addresses they were not pleased. Later I heard one of the staff saying to another “We’ve had the usual arseholes in tonight.” I was obviously one.
Regretfully I made my way to my mother’s, who cursed me for my crooked and mad life. “The police are still looking for yer.” And said I could sleep on the sofa until everyone got up for Christmas. But don’t expect any dinner she said. Which I didn’t.
That low Christmas probably did me a power of good, though I would not recommend it. Being intermittently homeless, being lost and unable to work out what in the world I was doing was doing my head in. But that low Christmas forced me to rethink my life.
Last week I experienced something that almost brought tears to my eyes. I went to South London to St George’s Hospital to be at the launch of a homeless unit that takes homeless people seriously. That does not just see them as I had been seen 53 years before. There you will find doctors, nurses and supporters who have embraced the idea that people in deep need require more than just bandages and medicines.
How do you handle homeless people in the health service? They present themselves in an emergency while living an emergency. They don’t necessarily have the luxury of going somewhere and putting their legs up for a week.
Inspired by the Pathway programme started at University College Hospital in 2009, the St George’s unit will endeavour to give homeless people the same kind of service you would offer a prime minister. We should all be treated equally when in need, irrespective of the kind of crisis we are passing through.
It really was a wonderful feeling to be in a place where the crisis of homelessness was acknowledged and taken into account. Where the care needed was not rationed.
But more than anything, the unit will try and help people who, when given medical support, are not just put back on the streets to fester. The case of a young pregnant homeless woman who had nowhere to go but back outside highlighted the need for joined-up social support action. Fortunately she did not have to nurse her newborn in a doorway.
It was one of the most enlightened evenings I had spent, listening to the doctors and nurses whose job it was to provide this wonderful medical-social thinking. I shall write further about the Pathway programme because it is this sense of enlightened emergency support that we need to concentrate our efforts on.
Emergency help should be effective, efficient and take people out of the emergency. Giving people medical treatment in the crisis of homelessness should be seen as getting them a step away from emergency.
I have banged on about prevention for so long and believe in it fully. But that does not mean we can ignore the emergency of current times. We have to provide the best of emergency support in a way that helps people move away from it.
On so many occasions I would see people in doorways with heavily bandaged legs, arms or head; it seemed the biggest of anomalies, one that needed to be addressed.
St George’s and Pathway have begun to address that. And the good news is that Pathway is spreading out to hospitals all over the country. I hope we can all get behind their thoughtful and profoundly inspirational work.
John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. @johnbirdswords
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