Sarah Lawson is a Policy and Programme Support Officer in our Healthy Lives team. This blog was written by a care navigator for Pathway within the Royal London hospital in support of our series of infographics looking at the wider social determinants of health.

I’ve lived in lots of different places. I’ve sofa surfed with friends, I’ve lived in hostels, I’ve slept rough in parks.

I was very embarrassed about being homeless so I’d never sleep in doorways where I could be seen. Instead I’d find a nice little corner in a park, or hide myself away somewhere you wouldn’t think of going into of a night time.

None of these places were home. But neither was the house where I’d been living with my ex-partner. I’d had to leave to get away from a violent relationship. That house didn’t feel like a home because I always felt at threat. I didn’t feel safe.

I was housed by Tower Hamlets housing with the help of a very kind social worker after a brief admittance to a mental health unit, because I was just not coping with life and being on the streets. I found that my drinking became worse when I was housed, as I could just close the door and drink and not be bothering anyone.

I still managed to ensure my rent was paid so I had a roof over my head, but the drinking got to the point where I was found by a friend on my couch very ill and was rushed to hospital. I ended up staying there for three months and then spending time in rehab for my legs.

That was my lowest point, and also my turning point I suppose.

Ironically it was one of the consultants I sometimes work alongside now who told me then, if I didn’t stop drinking I was going to die. He was right.

It’s strange. That old me never would have thought in a million years that I’d be working again now. That I’d be settled. Happy. That I’d have a home where I live with my wife and family, where I feel safe and secure.

These days I work for Pathway as a care navigator within the Royal London hospital. I speak to homeless people every day who are still in that unsafe place. I can really relate to them because I’ve experienced addiction and been on the streets myself. They might be reluctant to engage with other staff, but they’ll have a cup of tea with me and sit and talk.

Nurses refer to me if they think someone is homeless or at risk of homelessness. Our team gets a call and we’ll go and assess that person to see how we can connect them with services, get the right help and support, or even just try and get their benefits back online. 

I never judge because every person I see is different. No one ever plans to become homeless, there’s always a whole load of background reasons. And I know from experience that support has to be offered at the right time.

I was given support at various points – with housing and with my drinking. I went into alcohol rehab for a month, but as soon as I came out I wasn’t prepared to be back in society. I’d lost my wife, my place, my job… I wasn’t ready and I didn’t know how to say that. I just needed someone to stick with me.

With a lot of the clients I work with now, I can see that a bit of help at a much earlier stage might have had a big impact. Things happen gradually: family problems, mental health… so many people who end up homeless have some kind of previous mental health condition. It’s often not just one thing that needs to be fixed. It’s not as simple as just giving someone somewhere to live.

There’s a community intervention team that I refer people to now. They actually supported me when I was getting back on my feet. A worker would meet me once or twice a week, or I could call him any time I just wanted to get some advice. He helped me learn to look after myself, my own health and wellbeing, and that in turn supported me to maintain my tenancy.

For me it was getting a job that really made a difference. As soon as I joined Pathways, I had a purpose and something to do, I started feeling much better and much more a part of life. It’s all connected. One of the things about having somewhere safe and secure is it means you can make long-term decisions and plan for the future.

When I go home from work now, it’s not just a roof over my head that I go back to. Even back then when I’d stopped drinking, was building my life back up and had been given a place to live, there wasn’t that home smell. I can’t describe it really. But if you walk into my house now, someone’s probably cooking, my step-kids are over, there’s a nice atmosphere. It feels safe. Like home.

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