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Supporting vulnerable homeless people during a pandemic

Along with the many obvious difficulties and challenges that covid-19 has created at Highwater House (a residential care home in Norwich for homeless people with addictions and mental health conditions) – the extra cleaning and infection control, staffing issues, the reduced access to health and addiction services, the struggle with increased anxiety – there have also been opportunities. Opportunities to strengthen bonds, to share a narrative – for staff and residents to truly mean it when we say ‘we’re all in it together’.

The people we look after at Highwater have all spent a lot of time in various institutions such as mental health wards and prison and often feel an acute sense of power imbalance, of an unfairness of being told how to behave by an all pervasive system. These feelings can unfortunately be carried over into the care setting, despite it being a benign and supportive environment. Residents may, because of their life experiences, be mistrustful of the offer of help and feel that staff are different to them – unable to understand how troubled they can feel.

The last few weeks have been a great leveller. A chance to prove we are all in the same boat, experiencing the same fears and hopes – everyone is feeling threatened, everyone is sharing worries about family or friends. Residents who experience high levels of paranoia have been able to see workers cope with such a strange situation, it has been a chance for staff to model how to have open conversations and how we ground our worries.

Simple day-to-day tasks around the home have taken on a new meaning – washing hands has become a group ritual, watching the updates on television ceremonial. New routines have grown organically as workers and residents negotiate this situation together.

As meetings with other agencies have been moved or cancelled, the team and residents diaries have become suddenly clearer. We’ve been freed up (in amongst the never ending cleaning schedule) to do the things we always say, as carers, we should be doing – sharing more conversation, playing games, helping unsettled people feel calmer. As the background noise of the city has reduced we’ve had more chance to sit out in the garden and listen to the sounds of nature.

In amongst the chaos that has hit the country, it is in the small moments that we prove our care – moments we would ideally always have. This crisis proves the reliance there is between staff and residents, the shared urge to make a home, the collective desire for safety.

There has inevitably been moments of immense stress and apprehension, and great concern for what the next few weeks might bring.

They do however say ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ – slowing down together, proving the home to be a secure space, increasing trust – in amongst the crisis, here at Highwater House we are finding ours.

Iain Boag is Head of Residential Care at St Martins

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