Q&A Interview with the Community Care Van Nurse
In June 2015, an initiative by the NSW Branch commenced operation – the Order of Malta Community Care Van. The van is staffed by volunteer drivers who visit ‘hotspots’ around Sydney to distribute seasonal items to help protect those sleeping on the streets and a Nurse from St Vincent’s Hospital travels with them to offer healthcare.
In summer the volunteers distribute water, sunscreen and sun hats and in winter they distribute the Order’s Coats for the Homeless. These items are invaluable to the homeless Community in preventing illnesses that can be directly related to a life of sleeping on the streets.
In 2017 the Van is expected to expand its operations to Parramatta. We spoke with Erin Longbottom, Nurse Unit Manager for the Homeless Outreach Team to understand the value of this service for the homeless Community:
Q: What is the most common health issues you see amongst the homeless on your Community Care Van runs?
A: The Sydney homeless community experience a wide range of complex health issues that often includes mental health issues, drug & alcohol issues and physical health issues. Myself and the volunteers consistently see ALL of these issues during our Community Care Van weekly outreach.
Due to the fact that we are giving out oral hygiene products we are able to often engage people around their oral health. This can be an opening to have a more in depth conversation about someone’s health. This happened recently when I was down in Woolloomooloo, I met a young man in Tom Uren Square who I referred to our Homeless Health Oral Health Educator. We made him an appointment which he came up to the hospital to attend. From there he has also engaged around seeking support with his mental health and gambling dependence.
Q: What is the most common reason for hospital admissions amongst the homeless?
A: People experiencing homelessness often struggle to navigate the very complex health care systems that exist in our society. For many of our clients often they struggle go to a GP for health issues that should be ordinarily simple to treat – for example they may have a wound on their leg that requires wound care, they are unable to go to GP and this in turn ends up escalating into a severe infection that requires intravenous antibiotics and a hospital admission. As a homeless health service we attempt to see people in the community and treat things like this early or to encourage people to see a GP and avoid having to go to hospital.
The question here may be ‘why do people not just go to the GP?’ Consider concern for your safety, stigma (people getting up and walking to sit somewhere else in the waiting room when you enter), extreme fatigue, keeping other appointments (e.g. Centrelink, housing) or obtaining the basic necessities of life such as food and a shower. Often your health is a lesser priority than all these other needs.
Q: Is there a particular homeless demographic that you see as growing?
A: Homelessness is increasing at the moment in Sydney as evidenced by the City of Sydney Bi-Annual Street Count. Anecdotally we are currently seeing an increase in young people and women fleeing domestic violence.
Q: Is the Community Care Van and its service well known amongst the homeless community?
A: The Community Care Van Volunteers are certainly becoming more recognised and people are learning to spot the red tabard’s when the volunteers are approaching. Rough sleepers often just love having a chat and this can often be the most valuable thing that happens on outreach – the human interaction and connection that occurs. I can also vouch for the fact that people appreciate the amazing big black jackets in winter – these are great! More recently the rough sleepers have expressed an appreciation for the hand sanitiser that has been added to the hygiene packs.
Q: How does the Van assist in addressing longer-term solutions for the homeless?
A: The Van not only provides health support to rough sleepers – when we go out we often assist with getting someone a blanket for the night or transport to accommodation (Missionbeat 1800 306 461). We sometimes also assist with getting someone a bed for the night (Link2Home 1800 152 152). Link2Home not only helps people to find accommodation for that night, it can also start the housing process for someone and is often an excellent way start the ball rolling for someone to access long term accommodation and support.
If you would like to become a volunteer driver for the Community Care Van, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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