Helping the homeless
Drug and alcohol addiction, abuse, mental health issues, bereavement, job loss—the stories behind why people become homeless are complex and devastating. And, with latest figures showing a rise in homelessness for the seventh consecutive year, there is an urgent need to help those who find themselves in such desperate situations.
Charities across the UK work day and night to help bring an end to homelessness—from the rough sleepers we see on the streets, to the “hidden homeless” living in hostels and temporary accommodation. Founded nearly 50 years ago, the charity St Mungo’s is one of these. As well as providing accommodation to more than 2,700 people a night, the organisation takes a recovery-based approach to helping the homeless rebuild their lives, by offering everything from education to healthcare.
Part of its offering can include homeopathy. A decade ago, one homeopathy project got off the ground when Thelma West approached several St Mungo’s hostels to give people living in their accommodation in London access to the treatment. This proved valuable to the people the service reached and in 2011, with more homeopaths on board, Thelma set up the group, Accessible Homeopathy.
A few years later, after reading about the organisation and the work they were doing, homeopath Fan Eustace signed up as a volunteer. She went on to take the helm when Thelma retired, at which time her colleague Suse Moebius joined. Since 2013 they’ve continued to work with St Mungo’s.
Working with people in need
For Fan, the reasons for signing up were obvious. “It goes with the territory of being a homeopath,” she says. “You wouldn’t train if you didn’t want to help people.”
As she was working in private practice only, it was a unique opportunity to reach people whose health needs were different from anything she had come across before. Collaborating with another homeopath appealed, she says: “Being a homeopath can be lonely and that’s not something I realised when I decided to study it; apart from supervision you don’t talk about your cases because of confidentiality.
“The beauty of the clinic work we do is that we always work in twos. It also means that, if one of us is ill or on holiday, at least one can be there. The majority of clients have been let down all their lives, so it’s important that we provide stability. This way we never miss a session.”
Fan and Suse currently run monthly clinics for women seeking refuge. Until a year ago the pair were running projects for men as well, but when funding started to run out they had to limit the service. It is currently only available at a women’s hostel.
In the report, Rebuilding Shattered Lives, published by St Mungo’s in 2012, the charity found that women do less well in homeless support services than men as their needs are more complex. More than half have suffered violence or abuse from a partner or family member, and many homeless women are mothers and experience problems including separation from children, prison sentences and mental health issues. Recovery can be a serious challenge in these complex scenarios.
“The women we see live a very different lifestyle to men,” Fan explains. “The majority have been in care as children and may have experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse. They have chaotic lives and tend to be more into drugs than alcohol. To support their addiction some end up as street workers, which can lead to arrests and time in prison—it’s much more of a vicious cycle for women than men.
“The men we have encountered are more likely to be alcoholics. They live relatively stable lifestyles. Although they drink too much and there can be aggression, they’re not in the same vulnerable position as the women.”
In the moment
At the clinic, Fan and Suse offer 30-minute appointments. They ask clients about what they chiefly want help with and then explore aspects of health including sleep pattern, general energy, appetite, as well as female hormone-related issues and types of pain. “Such general symptoms can be indicative of what’s going on,” Fan says. “Details of the main problem the client wants help with complete the picture,” adds Suse.
Afterwards, the pair discuss possible remedies and case management. “Working together means that you can choose the remedy more quickly,” Fan explains. “Very occasionally the choice is really obvious, but typically we do a case analysis.”
The main issues among clients range from depression and anxiety to insomnia and nightmares, as well as pain, menstrual problems and digestive issues, for example—but typically addiction is at the centre of each case. “The longer I work with St Mungo’s residents, the more I am convinced that the addictive behaviour is an expression of underlying trauma,” Suse says.
But unlike private practice, which delves into a person’s broader experience, Fan and Suse’s work at the refuge focuses on the immediate situation. Symptoms may be masked by medication and substance abuse, which is a challenge to effective treatment, but as Fan says: “Going all the way back to the source would probably take many years of treatment, and more often than not, it was caused during their childhood. The majority of our St Mungo’s clients have had extremely difficult, painful lives.”
The reality is that many people attend the clinic only once, or sporadically. It makes effective, ongoing treatment impossible. “To make a real difference, fairly regular attendance would be necessary, but the circumstances of most people in this type of hostel don’t allow this,” Suse says. “The reasons for this are highly variable, and as complex as the residents’ lives.”
Fan adds: “We’re not going to cure anyone from alcoholism or drug addiction, but that’s not what we’re there for. We are there to palliate and relieve physical or mental pain of the moment.”
Fan and Suse only occasionally see the same client more than once in the refuge. In 2014, they first worked with a client in her late 20s who had grown up in very challenging circumstances. She’d developed bulimia in her late teens and later became an alcoholic. They prescribed her the remedy, Carcinosin, twice.
Recently the client returned to the clinic; she had been warned that just one more drink might kill her. “She was desperate and remembered that we had helped before,” Fan says. “She was like a different person—‘on the edge’ and consumed with anxiety.”
After a prescription of the remedy Arsenicum, she returned to the clinic the following month and said: “What did you give me? I need to know. It is helping the extreme anxiety I had, I’m not drowning now, and I have so much gratitude for you two.” And the homeopaths say there are other similar striking examples of homeopathy providing relief from the intense suffering clients commonly experience.
For both Fan and Suse, seeing the difference homeopathy can make to people’s lives is what makes their work at the refuge worthwhile. A big part of that comes from building trust with people and making them feel listened to. “I feel deeply touched by the complex histories of our clients and that we ‘bear witness’ to it,” Suse says.
Fan adds: “Perhaps what we do could be seen as akin to counselling–but it is more. We don’t advise, we are there to talk to, and we listen and then we treat. Thanks to homeopathy we are able to offer something concrete.”