by Claire Spencer
In the Full Council held on July 7th, 2015, Full Council considered a Scrutiny report on Homeless Health, which you can read here. As a cause close to many people’s hearts, we ran out of time for me to speak, but I thought I would share the speech I wrote here:
A few months ago, a group of councillors set up – as per Recommendation 8 of this report – a surgery for street sleepers and other homeless people at SIFA Fireside’s drop-in centre. We did this for many reasons, but I think it’s safe to say that understanding the health challenges that many homeless citizens face in our city has shown me a very different side of the society we live in.
I only like to speak when I can add something new, and here I would like to talk about the power of community. Community matters everywhere, it matters to people, and it matters to people who sleep on the streets. But the power of community cuts both ways. Let me give you an example from another area of health. The Framingham Heart Study commenced in 1948, and is arguably the US’ most ambitious attempt to truly understand the causes of heart disease. Centred on the small town of Framingham, Massachusetts, each resident was subject to a health assessment every four years, “every aspect of their health quantified and collected”. It is because of this study that – for example – we now understand the positive role of ‘good cholesterol’.
But it also taught us something else. In 2002, this goldmine of data was picked up by two social scientists – Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. They used that data to demonstrate conclusively – perhaps for the first time – that ‘behaviours’, good or bad, pass between people with social connections as though they were contagious viruses. Their simulation on obesity is fascinating – far from being randomly dispersed – people who gained or lost weight were part of the same social clusters. Furthermore, behaviours could even skip a social link. So – to play on the title of the article that introduced me to the study – your mother’s best friend could be making you fatter.
They showed that spending time with healthy, happy people makes you healthier and happier – and conversely, spending time with unhealthy, unhappy people will make you less healthy, less happy.
All this is to say that when services fail one, two, three street sleepers, we need to understand that that failure spreads, that more people’s health will get worse. But it also gives us a shining hope, that clusters of improvement will lead to more improvement. The closeness of the community of homeless citizens in our city will be at the heart of getting it right, and our challenge is – as highlighted by Recommendation 5 – to form a community of services that is equal to meeting that challenge. We already know something of the plans to strengthen our street sleepers partnership, and I hope that all Members will provide grease to their elbows.
To conclude, I would like to reflect that in previous years, partnership has been desirable, but in a time of a well-funded public sector, perhaps not seen as vital. We could not be in a more different position now. With less money to go round, in a time of cuts to Public Health, local government, where even the Homelessness Prevention Grant itself could yet be under threat, partnership between agencies and services is the only way to ensure the accessibility and availability of services that enable our most vulnerable citizens to live healthy lives.
To quote John Hardy, who Chairs the Street Sleepers Partnership: “look at that person sleeping on the street. How different would our service response be if we thought ‘that person is likely to be dead in five years’?”
Let’s make sure that that isn’t the reality, and support the conclusions of this excellent report today.