Health and social care access for people experiencing homelessness and lessons for primary care
By Megan Armstrong, on 29 October 2021
This blog is written by Caroline Shulman and Megan Armstrong. Caroline has worked as a GP for people experiencing homelessness in primary care and as a clinical lead in a hospital homeless team. Caroline is principal investigator (PI) on a range of projects on palliative care, frailty and homelessness. Megan was the senior research fellow on this project and currently is the Programme Manager of PD-Care and the PI of exploring self-management in those experiencing low socioeconomic deprivation.
Though everyone’s circumstances are different, to support people experiencing homelessness, it helps to understand some of the underlying causes of homelessness. Systemic factors such as austerity, increase in poverty and inequality, regressive changes to welfare systems, increased job insecurity with more zero hours contracts, lack of affordable housing and a hostile environment for migrants have contributed to significant increases over the last decade. However, in addition, there are individual vulnerabilities that increase the likelihood of becoming homeless. It is estimated 90% of people who are homeless have experienced adverse childhood experiences with 54% experiencing four or more (1). Adverse childhood experiences include abuse (emotional, physical, sexual or neglect) and household dysfunction such as living with domestic violence, or with a family member who has an addiction, is suicidal, mentally ill or in prison. Lack of having needs met and being soothed as a child impacts on cognitive, emotional, and social development and unresolved trauma is associated with an overdevelopment of the emotional and reactive parts of the brain (2).
People experiencing homelessness have some of the worst health outcomes of any group in society with the average age of death being in their early 50s (see here). They have a much higher rate of most long terms conditions, including heart disease, respiratory disease than even populations in the most deprived sectors of society. Conditions usually found in older populations, such as cognitive impairment, incontinence, poor mobility, and frailty are highly prevalent at a young age in this population. Many people, with a history of sleeping on the streets in London, end up on homeless hostels. Homeless hostels are staffed by support workers who have no training in health or social care. In one hostel (for adults aged 35+), where residents average age was 55, frailty scores were equivalent to a population of people in their late 80s. All had multimorbidity with the average number of conditions per person being seven. Older age conditions such as cognitive impairment, falls and poor mobility were highly prevalent, though only 9% had any form of social services package of care (3).
One reason for the young age of death of people experiencing homelessness is the barriers they often face in accessing health and social care. Our study aimed to explore these barriers and potential facilitators from the perspectives of hostel residents and staff (4). We interviewed 18 homeless hostel managers/support staff and 15 people experiencing homelessness from six homeless hostels in London and Kent.
We found there were service barriers to health and social care access due to:
Stigma of both the residents and the hostel staff (often reporting not being believed):
“We have got one of the local GPs around here, they will not accept our residents unless a keyworker is with them, and they have to attend all appointments with them and register with them. They won’t accept them on their own.” Support worker
Lack of communication and information sharing from services with the hostel:
“I was that upset and annoyed that she’s [social worker] not speaking to anyone else that I’m working with [in the hostel]. I said, “It’s not keeping you up to date.” I speak to you once every three weeks, you don’t know what’s happening. So I could be going through a really difficult time and you’re not aware of it….” Resident
A lack of trust from the residents and a struggle to build relationships beyond the hostel staff:
“I’m still finding I’m having to learn to trust people. I don’t always trust people now, and my confidence is not brilliant. Once I know someone [this is different]…., but I’m not very good coming forward at the beginning.” Resident
Incorrect assumptions around capacity and the role of the hostel:
“I think because a lot of people presume because it’s [the hostel] a 24-hour manned project, they’ve got staff. They [external services] don’t really realise that our job isn’t to be carers…It’s not always practical to see everybody every single day. What people see from the outside is 24-hour staff” Support worker
The impact of lack of health and social care support led to staff going beyond their job role, continuous support needed by the residents, and burnout:
“We also have to go and collect people’s medications. We don’t have to but we’re doing that as well and liaising with GPs to put [medication] in dosette boxes and things like that.” Hostel staff
Overall, the hostel staff and residents had a great, trusting relationship. However, due to the lack of external service support, this can become a huge responsibility for the hostel staff. The quote below highlights the trust in the hostel staff.
“I think she [hostel staff member] cares about me. I’ve never actually asked her, does she care? The staff here are alright, I like them. I like the staff here. I ain’t got a bad word to say about them.”
An example of the causes of burnout for hostel staff include the trauma when a resident dies:
“When he was standing along the walls and he was saying, “I’m feeling pain,” and he just slid into the floor. It was during the night, early morning so there were only two staff. Staff were running up and down. It was quite a traumatic experience.”
What does this mean for primary care?
- Everyone needs to be able to register with a GP. Groundswell have developed ‘My Right to Healthcare’ cards that can be posted for free.
- Training is available for reception staff including a short 6 minute video: resources here
- Primary Care Networks should consider having an inequalities lead to explore local solutions. They could also undertake a self-assessment to support improved engagement with inclusion health groups (see here).
- Services should be person-centred, and trauma informed so that people feel safe, welcome, listened to and understood. Here is a video on trauma informed communication skills and an overview of training available here.
- Services need to recognise the importance of developing trust and trusting relationships, as these are at the heart of healing and recovery. Ideally with the continuity of care with the same provider.
- Services should proactively support people with literacy, language, and cognition difficulties.
- Primary care services should consider how they can take care to people with the highest need to enable trust to be developed. For example, enhanced services undertaking in-reach into hostels can be highly successful in increasing engagement. Reaching out to frontline staff in homeless services, who often feel stigmatised, can be a first step in acknowledging the support they are providing and explore how they can be better supported.
It is our duty to find and care for those in our community who are excluded and marginalised and advocate for their needs. We need to embed inclusive care and assertive advocacy as core to our work.
- Liu, M., Luong, L., Lachaud, J., Edalati, H., Reeves, A., & Hwang, S. W. (2021). Adverse childhood experiences and related outcomes among adults experiencing homelessness: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Public Health.
- Bennet, M.S. (2017), ‘Connecting Paradigms: A Trauma-Informed & Neurobiological Framework for Motivational Interviewing Implementation’, Bennett Innovation Group, Denver.
- Rogans-Watson, R., Shulman, C., Lewer, D., Armstrong, M., & Hudson, B. (2020). Premature frailty, geriatric conditions and multimorbidity among people experiencing homelessness: a cross-sectional observational study in a London hostel. Housing, Care and Support.
- Armstrong, M., Shulman, C., Hudson, B., Stone, P., & Hewett, N. (2021). Barriers and facilitators to accessing health and social care services for people living in homeless hostels: a qualitative study of the experiences of hostel staff and residents in UK hostels. BMJ open, 11(10), e053185.