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September 5, 2022

People experiencing homelessness still poorly treated when it comes to primary care

Dr Zahid Chauhan, OBE

The recent heatwave prompted pleas for help from people who are experiencing homelessness concerned about everything from severe dehydration to burns.

Usually our thoughts turn to those who sleep rough during winter and in particular Christmas, when the biting cold claims lives.

With no place to shade, hot sun makes people who sleep on our streets vulnerable but where do they turn to with their minor injuries and ailments? Too often, not the surgery I am afraid, largely because of a perpetuated myth that no address means no treatment. But there is also a feeling among people experiencing homelessness that they do not belong there and even a sense of embarrassment for some.

Tragically, this group allows everything from coughs to open wounds to fester, ending up instead in A&E where the treatment is expensive and sometimes dispensed too late.

I formed Homeless-Friendly after hearing tales of people sleeping rough walking up to ten miles to receive help at emergency wards. I also met a man who was homeless prising out his teeth with a pair of pliers because he couldn’t get decent dental care.

The situation was simply unacceptable.

Ten primary care outlets began a journey with us, promising to treat people affected by homelessness with dignity and respect and never refusing them treatment on the basis of address. Some have since gone on to become homeless hubs, disseminating information and advice on housing, employment, and conquering addiction, as well as treatment. Others have opened food pantries. Our pioneering ten have also since been joined by more GP surgeries, out-of-hours services, businesses, charities, local authorities, hospices, hospitals, dental practices and even
football clubs!

From the smallest acorn, the mightiest tree has grown, and our charity was the first in the world to hold a COVID vaccination clinic for patients affected by homelessness.

The will is there, but need is outstripping demand. The cost-of-living crisis and the aftermath of lockdown has seen a growth in poverty and homelessness. This is allied to the alarming rate of GP surgeries closing their doors. There is also a reluctance on behalf of some decision-makers to take the subject seriously and I honestly wonder what would have become of some of our most vulnerable people had the worthy causes working on our streets not existed.

Homeless-Friendly remains mainly a North West cause with a smattering of support from across the country, plus organisations in Wales. Rough sleeping meanwhile has morphed from the city to the suburbs, the town and even the country, where the charities I mentioned earlier, simply don’t function.

From the dawn of the industrial age, homelessness has been a problem. It will not be solved overnight with one wave of the wand. However, we can at least try and engage with the people who are sleeping rough in our locality and offer them hope and health.

Nobody needs to remind this GP that hours are long and life stressful right now, but I honestly believe that proactively giving time to check on our most vulnerable (the average life span of a person sleeping rough is just 45-years-of-age) is so important. Amongst the many moral benefits of such an approach, we nip potential serious ill health problems in the bud and save the taxpayer millions in expensive treatment and more importantly the patient from serious pain.

Joining with us to provoke political action is one way to change things. But if that is not for you, remember the words of Mother Teresa - “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples” – and ensure that you and your organisation become homeless friendly.

Find out more about Homeless-Friendly.

Dr Zahid Chauhan OBE is a campaigner for health equalities and the creator of the Homeless-Friendly charity which works with surgeries, hospitals, hospices, charities, councils, and businesses to ensure homeless people get the best possible healthcare. Learn more about Dr Chauhan and his work.

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