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Helping the homeless: How a street nursing organisation is trying to stop the spread of coronavirus among the vulnerable

Infirmières de rue providing medical care for homeless during corona pandemic
09:46 30/04/2020

The global pandemic has highlighted the importance of having a safe home to curb the spread of the deadly virus. Governments around the world have been forced to find solutions for people living on the streets or in inadequate housing to help them survive.

 Among local initiatives, the Brussels government has given €4 million to support the homeless during the crisis. And organisations supporting the homeless have relentlessly been highlighting their plight and appealing for further aid.

 One of them is street nursing organisation Infirmiers de rue (IDR), a Brussels and Liège-based team of nurses and social workers who build relationships with the long-term homeless. They reconnect them with society, find them permanent housing and once in a more stable situation, match them with volunteer buddies to help prevent relapses.

Its communication and fundraising manager Laurène Laroche explained to the Bulletin how the nonprofit was continuing to work with this high-risk population during the pandemic. She outlined some of the immediate challenges, including the need for the homeless to be screened.

Street nurses Infirmières de rue in Brussels during the corona crisis

“At the start of the crisis, we immediately reorganised our service to see as many people as possible and across a larger area. Some support services have remained open during the crisis to provide emergency housing. Since mid-April, we have been involved in the medical follow-up of around 30 homeless people sheltered in a hotel requisitioned by the municipality of Anderlecht.

Our workers are divided into two teams, one looking after people on the streets, the other people who are housed, but still in need of assistance. Their work has changed from finding long-term solutions to providing information on the dangers of the virus and ways to stop it spreading. As streets have become more and more empty, IDR has been a regular presence, keeping an eye on the health of vulnerable people, whether on the street or in some form of housing, in collaboration with GPs.

Among the complications in helping people on the streets, is the fact that some live in groups, which means it can be difficult to separate them. Many suffer from mental health problems and have diminished awareness of the situation. Some people think that nothing can happen to them because they have already experienced everything on the street, while others do not believe that this is a crisis. We therefore have to convince them of the merits of the measures imposed by the government. In addition, most of them have not received a mask and do not have access to soap and water to wash their hands several times a day.

Medical care for homeless during coronavirus Infirmières de rue Our street teams generally rove around because it’s not currently possible to make appointments with services and institutions. Priority is given to the most fragile patients in our care, but we are now actively looking for everyone on the street, especially those who are isolated or who are on the outskirts of the city. We support them all with information, prevention, medical care, food if necessary and hygiene.

Appointments with patients already in housing have been cancelled, but follow-up and administrative work continues. Medical surveillance is more of a priority because these people are isolated and their problems may not be picked up, so we remain in contact with them by phone. Some of the housing team have been redeployed to the street team, as it is more in demand.

The homeless population is a high-risk group. Their life circumstances combined with their physical and often appalling psychological state add to this vulnerability. At the beginning of the crisis, homeless people did not receive information about the pandemic and suffered from the closure of reception structures (night shelters, health centres, soup kitchens, etc.). Many quickly ran out of food and water and begging was no longer possible because the streets were empty.

To start with, our workers did not have much protection equipment (face masks, disinfectant gel…) either for themselves or patients. Thanks to our network and appeals to the public, we have managed to find the necessary equipment.

Medical care for homeless in Brussels during coronavirus Infirmières de rue

The challenges in our work consist of meeting as many people as possible, to shelter and screen them, and hopefully to find them long-term accommodation after confinement. Above all, we have to prevent the virus from spreading among such a vulnerable population. This is why street nurses, together with partners like Médecins du Monde, Médecins sans frontières, Le Samusocial, Bruss'Help, and others, insist on the systematic screening of homeless people, because it is the only way to identify contagious people in time and to adequately isolate them.

Authorities must provide protective equipment and screening tests. There also needs to be some reflection on how suitable actions can be quickly put in place to house these people, in case we face a new wave of contamination. Our ultimate objective is to end homelessness in Brussels and Liège.”

Infirmières de rue welcomes donations to the following account: BE91 0014 6955 7676. It regularly appeals for protective material via its Facebook page

Written by Sarah Crew