The vital link with the streets

The vital link with the streets - 02/09/2020

Parish nurses are appointed by churches to support people living and working in the parish. The nurses care for people’s wellbeing, encompassing their body, mind and spirit, by focusing on the person rather than their medical condition and addressing their immediate needs. Parish nurses work with people of all faiths or none, offering advice and guidance, signposting and helping to link people up with health and social care and local services that can support them.

Help us Help spoke with Michaela Suckling, the parish nurse from St Matthew’s Church in Sheffield city centre to find out about her role before and during lockdown, and how she works to keep people on the street linked up with agencies and services best placed to support them.

Tell us about the role of parish nurses

“There are about 100 of us across the country, all fulfilling different roles depending on the needs of their community. Some could be running toddler groups or kids clubs, whereas others are working with homeless people or others on the fringes of society, like me in Sheffield.

I see my work as all about opening up access to services when people may have been unable to access them before for some reason. I’ll often speak to people living on the streets who know about all of the day centres, but find the environment overwhelming for some reason - perhaps it's a building where they have experienced something in the past, or just the noise and the general chaos that can ensue. By encouraging people to rest for a while in the church and taking them away from the noise can help provide a quieter stepping stone into services, which is what we all want.

Alongside my work with homeless people, there’s a second strand to my role. Our parish is economically deprived and comes with many associated health conditions, such as high blood pressure, obesity, stroke and poor mental health. We are opening up a stall in the Moor Market to provide an easy access route for people to come and get their blood pressure checked or get advice without seeing a doctor in a surgery environment. It’s an informal setting which we hope will encourage people to call by and get checked over. 

Going forwards we hope to expand this to offer health checks, occupational health support and health promotion to people who work in the city centre too.”

Let’s talk about lockdown - how did that affect your service?

“Well, our first thought was, ‘what do we do now?’ For those first couple of weeks when we were all figuring out how to continue our work, I was focusing more on the needs of our wider congregation - many of whom are elderly so were isolating. There were a lot of phone call check ins and prayer runs for the people who live in the parish and the services and agencies supporting them.

There were very few people on the streets initially, as most people had been found accommodation, and the dealers were not visible in the city centre. Whenever I saw anybody out on the streets I would check up on them and ring them into Framework, although pretty much everybody was housed. The people who were out at that time were pretty desperate and at times aggressive, which wasn’t nice to see.

As lockdown eased we started to see more people back out on the streets.  The dealers were back and we started to get problems with street drinking and spice use again. At the moment though, the main issue is loneliness - it's obviously great that we have managed to get pretty much everybody housed, and that this is a long term commitment from the Council, but housing people in flats on their own takes them away from their sense of community and their friends, so some of them find it really hard.

We’ve worked to find donations of TVs, radios, games and books to help occupy people in their flats, rather than them just staring at four blank walls day in and day out. Sheffield people have been incredibly generous, as they always are.

Keeping people in accommodation and supporting them to maintain their living arrangements is our main aim, as that is how we can best encourage them to access services again, whether that’s mental health support, drug support, or just general health care needs. 

There’s a tiny minority of 3 or 4 people who have unfortunately burned their bridges once too often so are currently not housed. They've been through all the accommodation providers, but due to fights, dealing or general risk factors, they are not able to be accommodated at the moment. It’s just too risky for staff and other residents. That doesn’t mean however that we should stop offering support and trying to engage with them again.”

What have you learned about the work that agencies have been doing during lockdown?

“Our weekly multi agency meetings have been great - everything is linked up, so all services know what’s going on with people living on the streets. We’ve seen mental health teams and drugs teams going out to visit clients in their hotel or accommodation to make it really easy for them to access support, meaning they don’t have to come back into the city centre again. This outreach support has been one of the real positives coming from the lockdown.

I’m constantly reminded of the effort and level of care that exists in services. Let’s take ‘Roundabout’ for example - they offer food parcels, bus passes, signposting and advice, help people have access to a phone and help them to kit out their accommodation. They really do go above and beyond, which is the same for all services working in the city. People may not see this - they see the person on the street in need and may assume that nothing is being done. That’s simply not true.

Another example is a gentleman who has been on the streets for a while, and has a really bad leg ulcer. I spent time trying to encourage him to access support and get his leg examined with a view to getting some treatment. It's all about finding a way into conversation, and keep offering the support until the person accepts it. I passed on the man’s details to the city centre PCSOs who became involved with him, and we managed to get him to access support - it’s that joined up thinking and strong links between services that are having a real impact on the streets.  I’m just a small part of the picture - there’s so much great work going on, every single day.”


As told to Alison Wise, Help us Help blogger.