Supporting people affected by homelessness and alcohol dependency during the pandemic

Dena Pursell | August 2020 | 7 minutes

Dena Pursell, Care Navigator at Groundswell in London, gives a view from the frontline of drug and alcohol services for homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When COVID-19 came about, the UK Government announced emergency funding for local authorities to accommodate people rough sleeping, to help protect them from the virus. Initially in London I didn’t feel like this was a success; I knew of certain people who were on the streets for quite a long time before being offered accommodation. But everything happened so fast, outreach workers had a tough job. After a few weeks, it felt like things started moving in London.

With day centres, soup kitchens, GPs and other support services closing or changing how they worked, we needed to think about how we could continue to support our clients. At Groundswell we believe good health creates a foundation to move out of homelessness. We support people experiencing homelessness to access the health care they need through personalised Homeless Health Peer Advocacy (HHPA) services, because everyone has the right to good health. We adapted this service during COVID-19 as most health appointments were cancelled. Instead we started making health and welfare calls to our clients, all who are experiencing homelessness.

With day centres, soup kitchens, GPs and other support services closing or changing how they worked, we needed to think about how we could continue to support our clients.

At first, I didn’t think this would work and wondered how we could reach out and offer support over the phone. I felt a bit helpless. I soon realised the value of these calls. As people were being placed into accommodation, I was able to talk to those who we normally struggled to contact. I also found people were so grateful to be able to talk to someone in this isolating time. I didn’t have to spend hours chasing services or walking across London trying to find them, and on the whole people wanted to talk to me. Over the phone I built great relationships with clients, some who in the past never wanted to engage with me. I was managing to establish the support they needed.

Most of my clients are dependent on both drugs and alcohol. Because of lockdown they couldn’t go out and get money to feed their addiction, and drugs became a lot harder to source. I have noticed people turning more to alcohol because it’s cheaper and easier to get your hands on. But I have also seen many examples where COVID-19 has had a positive impact on people wanting support with their addiction. Because of the uncertainty of the virus people have been worried about the effects of not being able to get hold of what they need, so people have been calling me saying, ‘I want help with my addiction’. I’ve had really good experiences working with drug and alcohol services during this time; they call people back quickly to assess them and have got them on scripts fast – it’s been really positive.

People have been worried about the effects of not being able to get hold of what they need, so people have been calling me saying, ‘I want help with my addiction’.

Unfortunately, as lockdown restrictions start to ease and emergency hotel accommodation closes, I’m worried about what’s to come. Many of the people I’m supporting have been uprooted with a moment’s notice, relocated to different boroughs and taken away from their support. They’re back to square one. They’re given no time to sort out their prescriptions, plus anxiety and mental health issues are high and so some people are turning back to alcohol and drugs. Groundswell are of course still in regular contact with our clients doing everything we can, but it’s a shame that good work done to engage people is being undone. I’m trying to find new support in their area, but it can be hard to get services to take responsibility. Groundswell will always go above and beyond for our clients, and we want to work with other services to help people achieve their potential.

I’m worried about what’s to come. Many of the people I’m supporting have been uprooted with a moment’s notice... They’re back to square one.

At the start of COVID-19 I have found relationships with clients, willingness to engage and great partnership work across services have been vital in giving people the support they need. There have been so many positives during this very difficult time, but I’m concerned about what’s to come as we head back to ‘normality’.