“If you go to the bottom of the pail of any particular service, you will find that there are homeless people,” says Neil Hamlet, Consultant in Public Health Medicine, NHS Fife and chair of the board’s health and homelessness group.
“Whether it is mental health, drug misuse, people coming out of prison, looked-after children, within these at-risk sub groups, you will always find that the homeless are the ones with the worst deal and the worst health, usually, because it is by loss of the relationship, the self-worth, the purpose that leads them into the situation of having no physical home.” Fife, surprisingly, has the third largest homeless population in Scotland, and so it is with this and the quickly approaching 2012 target to eradicate homelessness in mind that NHS Fife recently held an event entitled, ‘Crossing The Threshold: Health, Homelessness and How We Can Help’, in a bid to raise the profile of homelessness and awareness of the issues associated with it.
The main driver of the event, says Hamlet, was to put homelessness on the map as everybody’s business and help professionals to see the people and their needs, rather than the challenges they may pose to services.
However, it was also a chance to celebrate some of the good work already ongoing, he adds.
An example of this, he says, are the cooking classes run by the voluntary organisation Frontline Fife homelessness services in Dunfermline. The project aims to help vulnerable people develop their cooking skills and promotes healthy eating on a low budget, explains Kaitie Lorimer, homeless services co-ordinator, Frontline Fife. “They are learning how to make it, but also why it is important to eat healthily,” she says. “And it is also a chance to gain new skills and socialise with others.” Today’s group is a mixture of men from the nearby James Bank homeless shelter and the Fife Intensive Rehabilitation Substance Misuse Team (First), who Lorimer is teaching to make pizza from scratch. Everyone is expected to muck in and she soon has them all kneading dough, crushing garlic and chopping up vegetables.
And as they cook, they talk.
Jason started using drugs when he was 12, he tells us, and progressed to heroin when he was 16. He says he has tried going cold turkey twice when his mum locked him in his bedroom but he couldn’t stay away from it. Now he has a methadone script for 100ml a day.
“All I’ve ever known is drugs,” he says.
Rab and Tam came to heroin later in life.
“It took me ages to get into kit,” says Tam, who started using at 39. “I would sit watching the football with friends, watching some of them take it and then out of nowhere one day I said, give me a bag, then.” Now he says it is a drug that he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy.
“It’s the easiest to get into but the hardest to get help for and hardest to come off,” he says.
“It’s the worst drug I’ve ever come across in my life,” agrees Rab, who started using at 28 but has been clean for more than two years.
“It is the most destructive thing in my life.
That is what puts me off going back to it. It was far too hard a life. The thought of going through all that for another few years before getting help and having to go through it all again,” he says shaking his head.
“I look at people I know who are still living that life and I see myself as I was then. It will kill some of them in the end,” he adds matter of factly.
As well as learning about how to eat more healthily, they say the classes give them a chance to meet people in similar situations, as well as providing a welcome distraction.
“The thing people forget is that taking heroin takes up all your time. Then all of a sudden, it doesn’t. You have nothing to do. No one speaks to you. No one wants anything to do with you. That is hard,” says Rab.
Boredom is a slippery slope back to addiction, says Lorimer.
“People are rattling around the system.
They have to go to doctors, go to court, go to addiction services. They have to come here at such and such a time, no matter what they have planned, they have to put those appointments first. And in between times, they are just waiting.
“They are bored. There is nothing for them to go and do. They haven’t got any self-esteem.
They are viewed by society as no hopers and that is not what it should be like. They should have a choice,” she says.
Lorimer, however, is a prolific organiser of entertainment and in addition to the cooking classes, she has also secured an allotment where members of the group have started to grow vegetables to supply the classes and lunch time drop-in centre, has helped run creative writing and photography classes in the hostel, has plans to start a social enterprise working with recycled goods and also has her sights set on helping to secure a drop-in centre in Dunfermline so that people can secure all the services they need under one roof.
“For this to happen,” she says, “it is vital that this place includes the space and resources for people to get creative: a place where journeys of individual self-discovery will lead to increased self-confidence, self-worth, and improved skills, in turn leading to greater independence and social mobility.” Ultimately she says she wants to change perceptions of homeless people, but also show individuals what they can achieve when they get the “opportunity, circumstances and space to develop their talents.” “If you do something creative with people, things start changing for them. It gets their skills and confidence up,” she says.
“It is not enough to want to end homelessness. You have to try and transform lives.”