Friends in need

In an attempt to curb the exceptionally high rates of suicide
among people who are homeless, the Samaritans have turned their
attention to befriending this community. Daloni Carlisle found out
how just listening is helping

On a wet Monday night, three women wander up and down London’s
Kingsway looking for someone to talk to. They are providing a
service for people living on the streets which, up to now, has been
overlooked – befriending. Thisis the Samaritans’ term for listening
to people.

In a project launched in London, and soon to become national,
trained volunteers offer homeless people the sympathetic ear so
often denied to them. When one considers 23 per cent of deaths
among homeless people are due to suicide, talking is perhaps the
first step in reducing this figure.

The service began with an idea and an anonymous donation of
£26,667. Samaritan Fredwyn Hosier, as regional outreach
organiser, was conscious of the needs of homeless people. ‘I
wondered if we could be here for them, too,’ she says.

Last year, London Samaritans organised a seminar for over 50
homelessness agencies, social services and homeless people. They
then sat back and listened. ‘Homeless people told us they wanted
someone to talk with face-to-face,’ says Hosier. ‘So that is what
we are trying to provide.’

And when central office called to say an anonymous donor had
given an amount specifically for homeless people, one-third of
which was to be spent in London, the idea and the means came

Homeless people did not want a helpline located in a hostel.
‘Everyone would know who you were calling,’ she says. But they did
want telephone access to the Samaritans.

Hosier approached British Telecom, which provided 2,000
chargecards to connect callers to the Samaritans’ national number
and charge the Samaritans at local rates.

The charity also set up an outreach service. They began a
befriending scheme with 30 trained volunteers going on to the
streets three at a time for three hours a week. They wear a badge
identifying themselves and ask people if they want to talk,
encouraging them to express their feelings. They give telephone
cards to people they think may need one.

‘Another guy nearby heard this and when I asked him how he was,
he said if the first man had not brought him here he would be dead
at the bottom of the river. I gave him a telephone card. I do not
know if he is still alive.’

Like all of us, homeless people meet moments of despair, says
Hosier. ‘If you are homeless and you think nobody cares and nobody
will even know if you are dead, and you are cold and wet and
hungry, you experience utter despair.’

The high suicide rate may also be exacerbated by high levels of
alcohol and drug misuse and mental illness.

The befriending scheme is a drop in the ocean and this month the
Samaritans began training vendors of The Big Issue in listening and
suicide awareness. ‘We started by training some of the management,’
Hosier says. ‘We thought it might be difficult to recruit vendors.
In fact the response has been hugely enthusiastic.’

A training course planned for six people has been expanded to
take 20, and there’s a waiting list. Hosier is travelling the
country talking to other Samaritans groups, homelessness agencies
and social services departments about the scheme. Although it has
been running for six months as a pilot project and was only
officially launched in May, she believes it has been successful
enough to become part of the Samaritans’ core activities. ‘Our
befriending in prisons started like this,’ she says. ‘Now every
prison has befrienders and it’s part of our service.’

Working with homeless people has taught her some lessons, she
says. ‘It is interesting to think in London people can get the
things they need to live. They can get food, shelter and money.

‘I’m not diminishing their problems, but what people tell us
they really need is to be noticed. “I am not invisible and you do
not have to walk on by and blank me,” they say. I am not saying I
speak to every homeless person I see, but I do at least make eye
contact and smile.’

Homeless people and suicide

· There are between one million and two million homeless
people in the UK.

· An estimated 23 per cent of deaths of homeless people are
due to suicide. No figures exist for attempted suicide rates in the
homeless population.

· The average age of homeless people is falling; 40 per
cent of those in temporary accommodation are under 15 years

· Young men are one of the highest suicide risk groups. The
suicide rate of men aged 15-24 rose by 63 per cent between

· There is a high rate of illness among homeless people,
including serious mental illness, alcohol and drug-related problems
and chronic stress. Up to 15 per cent of alcohol misusers will die
by suicide, and drug misusers are 20 times as likely to kill
themselves as the general population.

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