‘Terminally ill patients are dying in hostels’: Hackney GP reveals health toll of housing crisis
- Credit: Archant
The horror stories include cancer patients being forced to forgo treatment and terminally ill people being cared for by untrained hostel staff. As a landmark study reveals a health crisis in hostels, Hackney GP Dr Claire Davies talks to Emma Youle
A Hackney GP has spoken of seeing the impact of homeless hostels on patients’ mental and physical health, saying hostels are an “unacceptable way to live”.
Dr Claire Davies has been at the frontline of treating health problems linked with inadequate housing in the borough and says people in hostels can easily end up on the edge of society.
Speaking as part of the Gazette’s Hidden Homeless campaign, she said: “We have many people who, once they get moved into a hostel situation, find that experience very stressful, because the accommodation can be very basic and of varying levels of quality.
“And of course they’re living side by side with people who have very complex mental and physical health issues.
“Some people have reported that they feel unsafe in hostels, and that’s very stressful.
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“Being in a hostel situation makes it more difficult for you to manage your health.”
It comes as the Gazette’s investigation can report on anecdotal accounts of health crisis in hostels.
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We have been told:
* A mother with cancer was reportedly forced to forgo radiotherapy because she was living in a Dalston hostel room;
* One vulnerable women with mental health difficulties reportedly died living in a Hackney hostel;
* Others are living with complex physical disabilities and complain of insomnia due to noise in hostels;
* Storing medication in communal fridges is said to be difficult because it can be stolen;
* Registering with a GP can be impossible without a permanent address or utility bill;
* Some NHS services are now online, whereas most homeless hostels do not have wi-fi.
Dr Davies highlighted a study published on the medical website Pathway last July which found terminally ill people are dying without support in hostels.
The research, carried out in Hackney, Lambeth and Westminster, was the largest study of its kind.
It showed hostel staff often end up caring for some of the sickest homeless people, despite not having palliative care training or support to do so.
Summarising the findings, Dr Davies said: “People that are homeless have a much, much shorter life expectancy, so they may be dying of cancer, they may be dying of end stage liver disease due to things like alcohol misuse or liver viruses, and people are having palliative care in hostels.
“I’m told in some hostels the staff are really having to go all out to look after these people.
“They’re not places to die – they are temporary accommodation.
“And if you’re a family with young children knowing that someone is dying in the hostel, I’m sure that’s a really unpleasant experience for people.”
The research called for urgent action to improve collaboration between health, housing, social services and the voluntary sector, with extra support for hostel staff.
Mum Fiona Mcleod, 36, who lived at a Dalston hostel, told the Gazette of one shocking case where life-saving treatment was abandoned due to living conditions.
“A woman who lives in the hostel, who has cancer, had to have her treatment cancelled because she can’t be around her daughter because she’ll be radioactive,” she said. “She has gone to the MP.”
Former luxury fashion worker, Sarah-Louise Simon, 30, who lived in hostels for two years, lost a friend in desperate circumstances.
“She was so sick and she should not have been there [in the hostel], and I kept saying to them ‘You need to move her’,” she said.
“There were no social visits for her, no health visits and she died. People shouldn’t be dying in temporary accommodation.”
Dr Davies has worked as a GP in Hackney for 15 years at London Fields Medical Centre, before recently moving to a new practice in Tower Hamlets.
She said a stable home was key for mental wellbeing. “And patients know that,” she added.
“They want us to write letters for them all the time, thinking it will help their housing situation.”
She said it was now “very common” for people with physical health problems to live in hostels.
“If they become ill and they can’t work, and they’re not entitled to sick pay, the benefits that people are entitled to like Job Seekers’ Allowance are very little,” she said. “Then it’s very easy to end up in a hostel situation.”
The GP said some of the telltale signs of a patient experiencing housing problems are: “Someone who’s been pretty reliable who is suddenly starting to be late for appointments, irregular with medication, missing appointments, developing a mental health problem, seeming very stressed.
“It’s an element of chaos that starts coming into people’s lives.”
Dr Davies believes social inequality in Hackney has worsened over the years she has practised there.
“I’d really like to see it easier for our vulnerable patients to get good quality social housing,” she said. “I struggle with seeing all these new developments going up when there’s so much poverty in the borough.
“People can look outwardly quite presentable, and you can go to someone’s home and be really shocked at the conditions that they’re living in.
“It’s really sad. And a lot of the poverty in the borough is behind closed doors.”
The Gazette has set up a Facebook page called Hackney Hostels Hotline for people to share their experiences of living in homeless hostels or other temporary accommodation in Hackney.
It is a safe space to post words, video or photographs about housing difficulties. Take a look: https://www.facebook.com/groups/hackneyhostelshotline/
MPs back Hidden Homeless campaign, saying hostel conditions are ‘appalling’
Hackney’s MPs have backed urgent action on the housing crisis – saying the Gazette’s Hidden Homeless investigation has exposed shocking conditions in hostels.
Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Diane Abbott blamed the government’s policies on benefit cuts and refusing to build homes for rising homelessness.
She said: “The conditions exposed by the Gazette are truly appalling and I fully support the paper’s Hidden Homeless pledge and would encourage others to sign it.
“Government is in denial about the homelessness crisis. Labour in government will reverse these policies and tackle the housing crises.”
Hackney South and Shoreditch MP Meg Hillier, said: “I remember the days of bed and breakfasts and we worked very hard to end that. But this is worse.
“People living in these conditions need others to speak out for them and it’s great that the Gazette is doing that.
“A stable secure home is the basis of a secure life and people living in temporary accommodation are living in limbo.”
The Hidden Homeless campaign is calling for urgent action to tackle the housing crisis. Sign our pledge page and help us gather 1,000 signatures.