A cold evening, but not freezing, cloudy but dry, I’d arranged to meet the Rough Sleeper Outreach team in Hull city centre. I arrived 20 minutes early. On the car park nearby the regular Tuesday night ‘soup kitchen’ had started to gather, and I stood chatting to the first two people to turn up.
These two likeable and welcoming chaps have been attending this kitchen regularly for many months, unable to afford heating and much food in their own homes. One tells me he’s recently been sanctioned for not attending a benefits appointment, now with no money at all for a while he’s having to scavenge and beg like a stray animal.
The flow of our conversation is halted as the younger of the two suddenly points across the road, ‘God, look, there’s a man over there collapsed on the pavement’.
We head straight over. A young girl and her male friend are already calling an ambulance. The collapsed man, maybe in his thirties, lies curled up on the pavement, static, barely breathing, and unresponsive to our shouting. The ambulance arrives in no time at all. As I pull back to allow the ambulance crew to take over, the Outreach team’s car pulls into the car park, and out get Warren, Kieran, and Luke. They’re straight to work.
I stand back, watching from a short distance. Paramedics carry out their initial procedures, as the Outreach team also stand by. Within a couple of minutes the man is being helped to his feet, faltering. Two of the Outreach team steady him, even hold him upright, whilst the third team member is handed a couple of blankets from the ambulance. The paramedics’ input to this situation is completed, the ambulance doors close and it departs. That’s perhaps not the outcome I was expecting.
The man is known to the Outreach team. They know his name, they know where he’s currently rough sleeping, they know of his history of drug use, and they also know that this man is allegedly currently banned from Hull’s homeless shelters. This knowledge and understanding is vital. Their initial plan now is to get the man back to his sleeping place, providing him with an additional sleeping bag, and keeping their eye on him for as long as needed.
Two of the team struggle to walk the man along the pavement, whilst the third heads off to get a sleeping bag. The man really cannot walk, he can barely stand, he is utterly unable to move without help. Within minutes he is once again collapsed on the ground, this time propped up by the Outreach team. They call to him by name, he doesn’t acknowledge them, but they continue to reassure. Another few minutes pass. The man is a human wreckage, badly damaged and almost destroyed – and yes, it angers me to see this. His breathing is now laboured and erratic, there’s no hope at all that this man will get back to his resting place. The team immediately make the right decision to call for another ambulance.
Following instructions over the phone, and using their First Aid training, the Outreach Team lie the man down on his back to ease his ability to breathe, the man splutters and gasps a breathe as they do so. They monitor the man’s condition, counting his breathes to the telephone operator as they wait for the ambulance to arrive. Whilst not a daily occurrence for the team, they remain calm, following instructions and procedures. The second ambulance also arrives quickly.
Once again the paramedics assess the situation. The Outreach Team provide the paramedics with the man’s name and some detail of his history. This time the man is stretchered, lifted into the ambulance, and taken away to A&E.
The whole incident, including both ambulances, has lasted about half an hour. I thank the Outreach Team for their incredible work, and leave them to the rest of their shift. I have no doubt at all that without being found, and without the care and determination of the Outreach Team, that man may have died of hyperthermia or asphyxia during the night. Even now, does he have a long future?
During this ’12 Days of Homelessness in Hull’ campaign we’re showcasing some great examples of the work being done in Hull to improve chaotic lives, and Emmaus’ Outreach Team – funded by Hull City Council – is certainly among the best and most innovative examples we’re sharing with you. There’s still much that outrages me though.
I’m angry that this man should get himself in such a state. This anger may surprise you, but like others working in this sector I despise substance misuse and its effect upon people and communities. I will not, however, write this man off as ‘just another worthless addict’, as some would do. This man has a soul, a history, relatives. He’s more likely to be the symptom of some horror, than the cause of it. No-one is without hope. I’ve seen other addicted people turn themselves around, with the right support.
I’m angry that we have emergency services stretched beyond acceptable limits, seemingly having to make impossible choices as to who receives expensive NHS care. I acknowledge I’m not a trained paramedic, I’m a journalist reflecting upon what I witnessed, but I don’t understand the decision made by the first ambulance crew. How ill did this man need to be?
I’m angry too that we have welfare and care systems in place that are too regularly exercising sanctions and punishment, creating barriers to the support some people so desperately need. The ‘austerity project’ and its ever-decreasing resourcing of vital services is somewhat to blame for this punitive culture.
Thankfully, as I witnessed with the Outreach Team, some are responding to these issues with innovation.
Jerome – Editor.