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We spoke to Providence Row about their award-winning health and wellness fairs that are improving access to healthcare for people experiencing homelessness in Tower Hamlets.

It is well known that people experiencing homelessness face significant health inequalities, and poorer health outcomes than the rest of the population. Diagnoses of physical and mental health conditions are much higher than the general population and many of those experiencing homelessness face early onset frailty. They also face multiple barriers to accessing mainstream health services. From stigma and discrimination when accessing mainstream services to financial barriers in the need to physically attend appointments or pay for prescriptions.

One initiative that aims to challenge that is, the Tower Hamlets Health and Wellness Fairs, an initiative by Providence Row, which secured Best Health and Wellbeing Initiative in the Homeless Link 2023 Excellence Awards.

The Health and Wellness Fairs, hosted quarterly at Providence Row's Day Centre, emerged as a shining example of how to engage people experiencing homelessness and address their physical and mental health needs. This innovative project, developed in collaboration with key partners London Borough of Tower Hamlets, St Mungo’s, and Groundswell, was recognised for creating supportive and non-judgmental environment to accessing healthcare.

The success of the Fairs was reflected in its tangible impact attendees’ health. Between June 2022 and March 2023, the Fairs witnessed 72% of the 285 attendees accessing health provisions on the day. From essential health interventions like vaccinations and mental health services to more unconventional offerings like massages and yoga sessions, the Fairs have seen people move into further treatment and aftercare, broken down misconceptions around health access, and improved and saved lives.

Key to securing their victory in the Excellence Awards, was the ability for the Fairs to be replicated and scaled to support more individuals across the country. The format, a team of dynamic partners (healthcare providers, charity sector, peer-led services with support and coordination from the Local Authority and Public Health), provides a blueprint for other charities and local authorities aiming to dismantle barriers to healthcare access in a cost-effective way.

Another standout feature of the Health and Wellness Fairs was the involvement of individuals with lived experience in the design and delivery of services. Co-production groups were formed to figure out what healthcare services people wanted, with Groundswell Peers providing comprehensive training for all staff. Resources were co-designed, and each fair collected feedback to make sure the initiatives meet people's needs. This is what Daniel who volunteered at the Fairs had to say about the event:

The health fair is really something meaningful and I wanted to be a part of that. There are so many extra services you wouldn't even think about like massages, and you can see the clients are really happy for it - that's why we do it really.

Moreover, the fairs continue to evolve based on what attendees want. For example, attendees suggested dental checks and hairdressing, and now these services are part of the fairs.

Following their success at the awards, Providence Row continues to improve the health and wellbeing support it provides and build new partnerships. Neal McArdle, Head of Learning and Training, who manages the Health and Wellbeing Fairs, shared their next steps:

Our recent triumph in receiving the Homeless Link Award has been a catalyst for significant advancements in our health initiatives.

He continued: "This accolade has not only elevated our reputation but has also secured funding for launching our Nutrition Project pilot. This project is aimed at providing tailored nutritional guidance, particularly for individuals grappling with substance use issues, while also enhancing Providence Row's catering practices and fostering nutritional awareness among our stakeholders. The insights gained from this initiative will be instrumental in supporting the Tower Hamlets Health Needs Audit.

Additionally, we are thrilled to announce the commencement of our medical room renovation, which marks the first step in expanding our health services. The initial focus will be on foot health services, with plans to broaden the scope to enhance our substance use services, ensuring better care in a more conducive and clinically sound environment.’’

As the Tower Hamlets Health and Wellness Fairs enjoy the glow of the Excellence Awards, the spotlight is rightfully on the transformative impact and innovation embedded in this initiative. Experiencing homelessness should not mean that someone is unable to access the healthcare they need. Nor should it mean we accept poorer health outcomes and growing health inequalities. The Fairs illustrate the potential for collaborative, inclusive, and holistic approaches breaking barriers to healthcare and providing vital support people experiencing homelessness.

Want to hear more? Neal McArdle, Head of Learning and Training at Providence Row is speaking at the Rough Sleeping Conference on 26 March. Find out more and book your place.