Providing healthcare – and so much more – to those in need

Roger Nuttall and Debbie Hutchinson, of the St John Ambulance Hastings Homeless Service, speak with a patient. SUS-180205-094122001
Roger Nuttall and Debbie Hutchinson, of the St John Ambulance Hastings Homeless Service, speak with a patient. SUS-180205-094122001

St John Ambulance is known for its essential work teaching and providing first aid up and down the country.

But here in 1066 Country, it has been providing a service of even greater value – to those sleeping on our streets.

For the past 14 years, there has been a dedicated group of people caring for the health of homeless people in our area.

The St John Ambulance Hastings Homeless Service, established in November 2003, has been providing medical assistance to anyone who needs it from an office at the Southwater Centre, Hatherley Road, St Leonards.

Sharing the building with The Seaview Project, the St John Ambulance homeless service opens its doors to rough sleepers four days a week to help them with any health-related problems.

Roger Nuttall, nurse co-ordinator at the Hastings Homeless Service, said: “There was a gap in healthcare services for homeless people.

“The service has expanded greatly over the years. We started with one session a week and now run four sessions here, and one at Hope Kitchen on Saturdays.

“We were given this cubbyhole at Seaview and have decorated it and equipped it to meet our needs, thanks to a lottery grant. We have a very close partnership with Seaview that works really well.

“This isn’t just a homeless service, we also help vulnerable people – a range of people with a range of needs.”

In line with a rise in rough sleeping in he area, the St John Ambulance Hastings Homeless Service has seen an increase in visitors – a 60 per cent rise in contacts with rough sleepers from 2016 to 2017 – which also reflects the efforts made to foster greater engagement with those in need.

It runs a drop-in service with no appointment necessary, and does not limit the time it spends with patients, allowing them to fully engage during a visit.

The service is in high demand, and often runs over its allotted time, but the staff and volunteers never mind if it means people are getting the help they need.

Debbie Hutchinson, general support volunteer at St John Ambulance Hastings Homeless Service and Seaview employee, said: “Some people just come in here to talk to someone, and have someone listen to what they say and treat them with respect. They come in with a particular problem but we build up a rapport with them, hear a bit about their life story and gain their trust. That way, they feel able to come back to us again if they need to.”

The Hastings Homeless Service provides treatment for physical ailments, such as wounds and ulcers, and gives mental health support. It offers a holistic service, treating the whole person and taking into account the effects of social circumstances on both physical and mental health.

Roger added: “We offer holistic care, which puts health problems into a life context. It allows us to tailor treatment to that individual and their personal circumstances. It gives patients an identity. We talk about their past lives, their aspirations and their future.”

Much of what goes on at the Hastings Homeless Service is about long-term care. While nurses may be treating a wound in the short term, the holistic care approach allows them to offer advice about things such as nutrition and harm reduction around substance use, to try and prevent injuries in future.

One of the most common health problems seen at the homeless service is around foot care – in 2017, the number of foot care consultations was at its highest for five years – and so a podiatrist joins the St John Ambulance team once a week to treat these cases.

Roger said: “Foot care is a common problem here, whether it be trench foot, athlete’s foot, blisters or ulcers. This is generally because rough sleepers keep their shoes on all the time, even when they’re wet.

“To help with this, for the past year and a half to two years, we’ve been using some of our lottery grant to buy breathable, walking shoes for people who need them, who meet a medical criteria – mainly people who are homeless. We also give out clean socks.”

As well as helping some of the most vulnerable people in our society, the work of the Hastings Homeless Service also benefits the wider community as it relieves pressure on the NHS and local GP services – especially as Roger is a nurse prescriber, allowing him to write prescriptions for patients.

As part of its efforts to engage with more rough sleepers, a nurse also joined the Seaview team for a number of outreach sessions. On two of these sessions, they introduced flu vaccinations – nine of which were administered to people not normally attending Seaview.

Not only is the work of the Hastings Homeless Service incredibly valuable, but it is deeply rewarding for those involved with the service.

Debbie said: “I love it here. It’s such a lovely team and we all get on so well.

“It is so rewarding, especially when people come back to us, then we know we are doing something right, that we’re giving out the right vibe. It’s all about gaining their trust. Where we are quite a small team, we can provide consistency, so patients coming here know they are likely to be treated by someone they’re familiar with. You don’t always get that at a GP surgery.

“We just take the time to listen to people and get to know them. Sometimes the best medicine is a smile.”

The St John Ambulance Hastings Homeless Service currently has 10 general support volunteers, six volunteer nurses and one podiatrist. Its sessions are from 12pm to 2pm on Monday, Tuesday and Friday, and from 10am to 1pm on Thursday. It also provides an out-of-hours service from 7.30pm to 9pm on Saturdays alongside Hope Kitchen at Wellington Square Baptist Church.

During 2017, the Hastings Homeless Service had 1,592 client contacts – a substantial jump of 11 per cent on the previous year.

The service is always looking for more volunteers, or donations of socks or money. For details, email Roger at Roger.Nuttall@sja.org.uk.