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Experience: supporting people rough sleeping during the pandemic

My work in Bournemouth over the last 12 months has highlighted to me that with concerted action homelessness isn’t inevitable.

Photo by Ben Sharples from Pexels.

By Iain Barnes, Recovery Worker (Outreach), With You in Bournemouth

Towards the end of last year, I was on an outreach shift when I came across a couple huddled together in a dingy stairwell. They were clearly in a bad way, the woman especially was dangerously thin and pale. I squatted down and started chatting to them, just simple stuff like asking their names and where they were from. Despite being on the streets and injecting they weren’t engaged with any services at the time. So, working together with St Mungos, we supported them to move into one of the hotels Bournemouth Council is using to house people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. From there my colleagues at St Mungos helped the couple set up a bank account and register with a GP, while I worked with them to stabilise their drug use.

This is very much a normal day in my work on Bournemouth’s Drug and Alcohol Homeless Pathway. For a Recovery Worker like me, it can be really hard to help someone address their drug and/or alcohol use if they don’t have the stability of a stable home. Vice-versa, it can be difficult for homeless organisations to support people into housing if their drug and/or alcohol use leads to chaotic behaviours. So the core principle that runs through the support we offer is that homelessness is a symptom of a variety of issues. This means the most effective way to confront it is a holistic approach which addresses everything at once.

It’s also about taking services out further than they have been before, something which is especially important during the pandemic. It’s not good enough to simply wait for people to walk through our doors, we need to meet them where they are with compassion. Many of the people I work with don’t have great digital skills so it’s vital that face to face support is still an option.

Many people don’t realise the huge difficulties people face when they are on the streets. It’s a turbulent existence that blows you one way or another with drugs and alcohol a way to mask the pain. Without an address or an income it can be easy to fall into despair. I know this as I’ve been in their shoes. While I don’t disclose my past to everyone I support, it comes through in the way I talk about things, the knowledge I have and my ability to identify with their situation. I like to think that my journey gives people hope.

While the impact of the pandemic has been dreadful, it has shown that with concerted action homelessness isn’t inevitable. The latest rough sleeper count reported the number of people sleeping on the streets on one night in England fell by a third between 2019 and 2020. This is a trend we’ve seen in Bournemouth, with many people now permanently housed and progressing really well through our new system.

The couple I came across in a stairwell are now living in social housing. They have an income, while their new found stability means they are able to properly engage in support around their drug use in a way they never have before. I know there will be challenges ahead, but through harnessing the strengths of different organisations, I’m really hopeful about what we can achieve.

These are tough times for everyone. With You services are open and we’re here to work alongside you during this difficult time. Visit our website for information and advice, to chat to a trained advisor or to find your local service.




Bringing together voices from drugs, alcohol and mental health.

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With You

With You

We are one of the UK’s leading mental health, drug and alcohol charities. We provide free, confidential support with drugs, alcohol and mental health.

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