'There are so many barriers': Meet the clinic helping Ilford's homeless access healthcare
PUBLISHED: 10:30 03 December 2018 | UPDATED: 10:35 03 December 2018
A row of stitches holding shut Kevin's* stomach had burst open when he arrived at the door of nurse Stephanie O'Leary's clinic for rough sleepers in Ilford.
He had undergone an emergency surgery days earlier to mend a ruptured stomach ulcer, having spent years sleeping rough in Ilford battling alcoholism.
“Whether he discharged himself or was discharged by the hospital, I don’t know,” Stephanie said.
She immediately rushed Kevin back to hospital to be re-operated on and patched up.
Days later he arrived at her door again with his stomach wound gaping.
“We ended up trying to do dressings to keep it clean and prevent infection” Stephanie said. “It was challenging.”
He died a few months later. Stephanie could not confirm the cause of death.
Stephanie, who has worked as a nurse in primary care for 25 years, set-up her clinic for rough sleepers in The Welcome Centre, in St Mary’s Road, Ilford five years ago.
To prevent incidents like Kevin’s happening again, she tries to coordinate how homeless patients are discharged from hospital post-surgery.
She seeks to ensure they have a bed to recover in, putting them into temporary accommodation if funds are available.
Her clinic runs independently under a project she set up called Healthy Living Healthy Lives, and her team includes a counsellor, a masseuse and two sports coaches.
It aims to provide a safety net for rough sleepers who have fallen through the cracks in the health service.
“There are so many barriers,” she said.
“Unfortunately, GPs are not set up for people that are homeless.”
“You are on an appointment system and you get penalised if you don’t go, and rightly so.
“But if you haven’t got an address it is difficult to register with a GP.
“And if you are sleeping rough and you haven’t got a watch, you’re not going to remember your appointment.”
Stigma around rough sleepers can create further problems, she added.
“I have seen staff look people up and down and say they don’t have any room on their list,” she said.
“People have booked appointments and, when they go down there, they are told ‘we don’t have any appointments’.”
To address this, Stephanie carries out health checks with all newcomers and aims to ensure they are all registered with a GP – which she says is “the gateway to the NHS”.
Her clinic is open for clients to walk in at any time on Wednesdays and Fridays and on average she sees 40 people each day.
The most common needs are mental health-related, drugs-related or chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and respiratory conditions.
Following check-ups she passes their information to their GP or refers them to partner agencies to get them access to the help they need.
“I recently had a gentleman who I found displayed symptoms of tuberculosis,” she said.
“I referred him to the chest clinic and now he is being successfully treated.”
Stephanie is currently not allowed to prescribe medicines to her clients – although she is qualified to do so - as her clinic operates outside of, but in coordination with, the NHS.
However her clinic also helps by safely storing clients’ medicines and ensuring prescriptions are taken regularly.
Massage therapist Linda Pearson told the Recorder that her sessions are, for some, “the only positive touch they have ever had”.
Many undertake long hours of cash-in-hand labouring work, she added, and are aching and anxious from sleeping outside.
“People will call us scum, they will [urinate] on us, they set fire to us,” she said, describing some of the experiences clients have confided to her.
David Savage has been offering counselling services at the centre for nearly nine years and see three or four people during each of his weekly sessions.
“[The issues] range from addiction to domestic violence, historical abuse or situational circumstances,” he said.
“I aim to provide a space where people have somebody to talk to that is not trying to solve their problem for them.”
“Sometimes they just want to talk and I try to fulfill that.”
Looking forward, Stephanie said her main challenge is securing funding for the next five years, as her current grant from the Big Lottery Fund is soon due to finish.
“If we don’t get further funding this service will come to an end,” she said.
She added that she welcomes help from health professionals - such as dieticians or experts in smoking cessation - who are interested in volunteering their services.
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Redbridge Together, of which the Recorder is a media partner, aims to raise £500,000 for Project Malachi and The Welcome Centre.
Project Malachi will see the creation of a temporary hostel for rough sleepers and homeless people made from recycled shipping containers in Chadwick Road.
Support workers from charity Ramfel will provide rough sleepers living in the hostel with immigration advice who need it.
The Welcome Centre, in St Mary’s Road, helps with providing hot meals, showers, clothing, laundry but also advice and support, training and employment and a nurse led clinic supporting health and mental health.
Businesses can support by donating money, raising funds, displaying Redbridge Together promotional material in businesses or offering work placements.
The campaign is an association an association between Ilford Salvation Army, The Welcome Centre, Ilford BID, the Ilford Recorder and Redbridge Council.
To get involved email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Donate £3 by texting LIFE to 70145 or at Crowdfunder.co.uk/RedbridgeTogether