International Nurses’ Day: Public health nurse worries about impact of coronavirus lockdown on ‘astounding’ homeless families in Camden

Kirsteen McDonagh. Picture: CNWL NHS Trust

Kirsteen McDonagh. Picture: CNWL NHS Trust - Credit: Archant

“The resilience of these families is astounding.”

England's Lane Hostel. Picture: Nigel Sutton

England's Lane Hostel. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Kirsteen McDonagh, 38, is a public health nurse who works with some of Camden’s most vulnerable people.

As a health visitor with specialist responsibility for working with homeless families, her day-to-day job is about making sure vulnerable women and families in the borough’s hostels and on the streets are able to access the health and care services they need.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the most vulnerable people have been the most at risk, and this has seen Kirsteen’s role expand as she tries to help those who are hardest hit by lockdown.

She spoke to the Ham&High to mark International Nurses’ Day – May 12.

On a day-to-day basis, Kirsteen explained, her role provides vital support with “issues like immunisations, minor illness, dental care, safe sleeping and healthy eating, the latter of which is particularly hard when people are struggling to get by financially”.

She said: “When families and pregnant women come into temporary accommodation, we pick them up. We talk to them about mental health, and the difficulties they are facing.

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“Families that are homeless have much higher incidences of mental health problems, family breakdown, domestic violence. We work with many women in refuges and with those who may be fleeing abusive relationships.

“In short it’s giving them what they need. There are no two days that are the same.”

Kirsteen said that, while a “shocking number” of people are rough sleeping and pregnant, much of her work was with the similarly vulnerable “hidden homeless”, whether that is those in hostels, people sofa-surfing or otherwise living in insecure housing.

Kirsteen herself was homeless and lived in temporary accommodation in a different part of London in her late teens.

She added: “Services for homeless people seem to have got better, but it’s difficult enough to be a single person who is homeless, never mind if you have children.

“The hidden homeless were perhaps more hidden then, 20 years ago, but now because of the benefits cap there are a lots more people in that situation.”

Not all communities have one, let alone two health visitors with responsibility for homeless families. Kirsteen thinks this should change. She said: “In my view, more really should exist everywhere. Like I say, there are homeless people in every single borough. A lot of families are hidden homeless,”

In normal times, Kirsteen and her team hold weekly play sessions at Camden’s biggest hostel – the England’s Lane hostel, which is set to be wound down later this year.

“It’s a space they can play, but it also creates a space parents can meet other parents and there are really supportive networks of women there.”

After completing a criminology and criminal justice degree, Kirsteen joined the Central and North West London NHS Trust in 2008. She has been in her current role working with the homeless for four years.

“When you are without a permanent home it can feel that people can tend to blame you for your circumstances. However, life happens to people; nobody sets out to be homeless,” she said.

“It’s important to me that I support these young mothers to help them understand that while things may be difficult now, that’s not how their lives have to be.”

Kirsteen worries about coronavirus and the lockdown measures having a disproportionate impact on the vulnerable families she works with.

She said: “Some families have really struggled to buy things like nappies. They can’t drive to the bigger supermarkets, and the little local ones were selling out really quicky, so we helped them out there. In general it’s been helping families with essentials.

“I have noticed everyone really coming together to find solutions for the families who haven’t got the space, but it’s one thing to be in lockdown if you are financially secure and have a garden and a support network, and another to be in lockdown in a single hostel room with two children.

“The resilience of these families is astounding. I am worried though that the longer this goes on there will be an impact on the children – on their mental health, their physical health, their growth.

“As public health nurses, these are the things we work around every single day.”