Engaging with people who are experiencing homelessness

People who are experiencing homelessness are often not asked about their views. We spoke to Healthwatch Dorset to find out more about their approach to working with homeless people and what they’ve learnt.
Woman wearing a black shirt standing outside in a courtyard

The COVID-19 pandemic created a lot of change for homeless people, with the Government offering financial support and guidance to local authorities to help get everyone into accommodation and off the streets. 

Healthwatch Dorset spoke to many people who were still rough sleepers, despite the Governments initiative, who said they felt safer sleeping on the streets.  We spoke to Lucy from Healthwatch Dorset to find out more about their approach.

Why work with people who are experiencing homelessness? 

Homeless people often face many difficulties and inequalities when trying to access health and social care services. 

They face daily struggles when trying to access basic things that most of us take for granted. 

People experiencing homelessness don’t have the loudest voice, and we must reach out to these people and help them have their say. 

What we did

We ran two projects working with homeless people throughout the year.

Mental Health in Community Care report

This was a joint venture with Dorset Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) to capture the views of local people who use mental health services. 

Dorset CCG ran an online survey in August 2020 for eight weeks, collecting people’s views to help shape the future of mental health services across Dorset. 

We visited local homeless support groups and drug and alcohol services and spoke to 27 people to gather more feedback from these groups. 

Promoting the voices of homeless communities in Dorset

This was a joint project with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) aiming to provide independent assurance to the public of the quality of care in the area. 

We visited a homeless support group in Bournemouth and Dorset and spoke to 19 people, finding out their views and attitudes towards health and social care services. 

Step by step guide 

Below is a step by step guide of the process we used to set up both projects with people who are homeless.  

  1. Think about partners you can work with (local homeless support organisations, groups, food banks, hostels etc.).
  2. Decide what resources you will need (Travel expenses, staff time, cost of donations, volunteers etc.).
  3. Tell your partners about the project and what you want to ask people. Offer practical support (such as making drinks or handing out food) or assist with running the service. 
  4. Attend the event and carry out practical help whilst you talk to people and gather their views. 
  5. Collate all your feedback and prepare it for a report. 
  6. Produce a report based on the stories you received. Include key issues, recommendations, next steps and acknowledgements. 
  7. Promote and share your report. Highlight the difference your work has made. Look for external opportunities (such as awareness days) as additional opportunities to promote your work. 

Working with partners

It is crucial to involve partners from the beginning. Think about the community support groups and homeless support organisations in your area – for example, is there a lead GP for homeless people or any local food banks that may support the community? 

Involving partners allows them to comment on and contribute to the project. They will also be able to offer you advice. 

Offering to carry out some practical help with the running of the service means having you is beneficial to them. For example, offer to make the drinks, put out chairs or hand out hand sanitiser. 

When you talk to your potential partner, be sure to explain to them the benefits of working together with their local Healthwatch, including how you will raise awareness of their service in your report and potentially support them with future grant bids.

Developing creative ways to speak to people

It is essential to develop trust with the people you are talking with and connect with them. 

Offering practical support, such as making the drinks, allows you to introduce yourself and get conversations started.

We offered to help set up a Gazebo and put out the chairs, this meant that we could spend the morning chatting to people whilst they waited. 

It can take a couple of visits before you have built enough trust for people to share their experiences. We found that opening up and telling people about their own lives was an excellent way to make that connection, and people opened up in response. 

Challenges to collecting people’s views

 It can take a few visits before people are comfortable enough to share their experience with you. 

People often want to know details about the organisation you work for and your own life before sharing their story. 

We found that once they had built that connection, people would look forward to their visits and ask if they would be back the following week. 

Costs and resources needed

Mental health in community care project

  • Initial meeting with service providers – staff hours 3.5
  • Visit carried out to organisations – staff hours 30 / cost on travel expenses £250
  • Donations – staff hours two / cost £200 (plus £150 for teas and coffees)
  • Report writing – staff hours 10

Total staff hours – 45.5 / Total cost £600

Promoting the voices of homeless communities in Dorset

  • Initial meeting with service providers – staff hours 3.5
  • Visits carried out to organisations – staff hours 20 / grant received from CQC £600 / cost on travel expenses £232
  • Donations – Staff hours two / £400 (plus £50 for teas and coffees)
  • Report writing – staff hours seven

Total staff hours 32.5 / Total income £600 / Total cost £682

Tips for success

  • Don’t speak to people by yourself. For safety, always work within an organisation or public place and have more than one team member present. 
  • Be informed. Homelessness comes in many forms, so be mindful of this and open to what someone else is going through. 
  • Be kind. Always try to acknowledge people by smiling, saying hello or asking them how they’re doing. Be patient and allow people the time they need.  
  • Respect boundaries. Ensure you do not enter someone else’s physical space and assume people want to be touched.
  • Stay safe. If you feel unsafe, call for help and do not give too much personal information about yourself, especially where you live. 
  • Look out for people. If you think someone is at risk of hurting themselves or others, then ask for help. 
  • Reflect on the conversation. Did people feel comfortable enough to share their stories with you? Think about the interaction – is there something you could have done differently? 
  • Take advice. Talk to the project leader when you arrive and take advice from them about how it might be best to talk to people. 
  • Allow conversation. Don’t worry if the conversation goes off-topic for a bit; allow people to express themselves or talk about other things on their minds. 

Main issues people faced

The biggest lesson we learnt was just how quickly someone can become homeless. You can have a job, home and stable life one minute and lose it all the next. It can happen to anyone.

Another issue people faced as difficulties trying to get food. We were able to secure a weekly 40kg food delivery from Fare Share for only £15 per week. Fare Share redistributes surplus food to charities and community groups to help people in need. 

Another issue many of the people we spoke faced was treatment as though they had less value and often felt completely excluded from society. Instead, they should be treated like human beings with the ability to contribute to the community.  

Tackling health inequalities

Both projects we worked on highlighted the challenges and inequalities that people who are experiencing homelessness face when trying to access services. 

The feedback you collect from people will help shape the future of these services, and by giving these people a voice to have their say remove some of the challenges they face. 

Our impact

As a direct result of the report and recommendations we produced on the mental health in community care project, Dorset CCG has set up a seldom heard working group to advise on transforming services. 

We were invited to Chair this working group, and The Lantern Trust have signed up to be a member of the working group, ensuring that the voice of homeless people is always on the agenda. 

Our report “Promoting the voices of homeless communities in Dorset” got a lot of press coverage, helping to raise awareness of the challenges and inequalities this group faced.  

Healthwatch Dorset: Tackling health inequalities

Want to find out more?

If you want to find out more about the question’s we asked during either of our projects, please get in touch.

Contact us


Theory of change spreadsheet from Healthwatch Dorset

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