Westside helps homeless find shelter, but offers skin condition warning

With face and hand sores and his nose dripping continuously, homeless man Ross Downer was grateful to Westside BID street wardens for helping him find a place to live.

The BID has a caring but firm zero-tolerance policy towards public begging, especially as the city centre and Ladywood are currently covered by public space protection order.

Wardens are typically on first-name terms with homeless people walking the streets and try to help where possible.

But Enoch White, one of the BID’s most experienced wardens, now fears that some of the homeless have developed potentially infectious skin conditions, such as impetigo, also known as Staph A.

Ross Downer (left) with Enoch White.

Enoch said: “Businesses understandably don’t like people sitting outside their premises, so we always try to help the homeless to get off the streets by pointing them in the right direction for help and support.

“Well-meaning people sometimes give the homeless packs of sandwiches or whatever, but what they don’t understand when sometimes shaking their hands is that skin conditions like impetigo can be really infectious.

“It’s best treated with a three-day course of antibiotics, but if the homeless either don’t want the help or don’t follow instructions it can carry on spreading. I’ve seen people who look like they’ve got holes in their hands.”

Homeless man Ross, who agreed for Westside BID to use his name and to photograph him, said: “I’ve never had a skin problem before, but developed sores on my face at the start of the year.”

Ross Downer’s arms. Picture by Enoch White.

Ross has not had direct medical treatment for his sores, but added: “The best thing I’ve found to get rid of it is hand sanitiser – it really stings but seems to be helping.”

City centre homeless charity SIFA Fireside said that while it had not seen any cases at its Deritend base, it was grateful to Westside BID for bringing concerns to its attention.

A SIFA Fireside spokesperson said: “We will be producing information to display in our support centre to alert clients and staff to the signs and symptoms, and make them aware of the risks. 

“Correspondence has also been sent to our frontline staff team to advise them of the information you have provided and to ensure any concerns are reported and handled appropriately.

“Should we become aware of any concerns regarding impetigo, we will look to get them access to appropriate medical attention urgently. 

“We have observed a resistance to accessing medical treatment and attending hospitals within the homeless community. This is sometimes down to fear, but also due to the chaotic nature of their lives, meaning it is difficult to keep appointments or manage travel to medical facilities. 

“We do have regular cleaning staff who will be do thorough cleans of washrooms, in particular after use. We have disposable gloves, and hand sanitiser is available throughout. 

“We do also have the option of isolating a client in one of our one-to-one rooms, however this would need to be looked at very carefully with regards to the safety of other vulnerable clients.” 

Westside BID has contacted Birmingham City Council’s public health office about skin infections in the homeless community but, at the time of uploading this story, no comment had been received.

The council’s website has eight sections dealing with different aspects of homelessness here.

Ross Downer: a life story

Although Ross is thankful to now have a roof over his head, he wonders why many giant buildings in the city centre are allowed to stand empty.

Ross outside empty buildings in the city centre.

Ross told Westside World: “Opening up big buildings could help to ease the homeless crisis at a stroke and save lives in cold weather. As well as that, billionaires from Elon Musk to Richard Branson could use their money to help everyone.”

Ross, a father of children aged 12 and 14 whom he said were supported by their mother, explained that he came to Birmingham from Gosport, near Portsmouth, after a drug habit ruined his livelihood.

He said: “The drugs I’ve taken are weed and cocaine – which make you feel like you’ve had an energy tablet. I stayed clean yesterday. I feel like I need something now, but I’m trying to stop, especially now I’ve got a flat in Kings Heath.

“I was given a banning order in the city centre for begging near Sainsbury’s. I still come up to the Five Ways area – I was brought here today by my support worker.”

With his nose running non-stop from the cold and his face and hands infected with sores, Ross said winter life on the streets was especially tough.

“I get £140 every two weeks, but how can anyone live off that? I had a really successful fencing business. We used to work so hard and fast, but it was my own fault I lost it.

“I don’t mind being photographed by you. Everyone knows me around here anyway. We just need kindness and support. I just wish people don’t walk past us as if we are not there. Even just saying they don’t have any spare change is a help if they actually talk to you to say that.”

Westside and the homeless

In December, Westside BID held a service at Gas Street Church in memory of 11 members of the street community, known to wardens, who had perished in recent years. You can read our story and watch our video here.

Mike Olley, Westside BID’s general manager, said that no matter how intelligent some of the homeless community were, many of their lives had been “cut short by addictions” – from drink to drugs.

Mr Olley said: “I’m very proud of the way our street wardens try to help the homeless. Yes, we have to move them on, but we try to do that with compassion, signposting them to agencies who can help them with housing, addictions and health.”

Remembrance service at Gas Street Church.

City health background

Government statistics show that Birmingham was ranked “the seventh most deprived local authority in England” with “deprivation most heavily clustered in the area surrounding the city centre”.

They also reveal that the average UK rates for impetigo had tripled in December 2022 to 1.5 per 100,000 people, compared with a more typical rate of 0.5 during the summer months. Impetigo typically infects children under five. The rates can be seen in graphs on this link.

With a population of 1.358 million, Birmingham and Solihull is expected to produce a comprehensive Pharmaceutical Needs Assessment every three years.

The 2022 report said impetigo was covered by one of three ‘extended care services’, with ‘Tier 2’ cover for the condition available through 124 pharmacies, and the most serious ‘Tier 1’ health issues covered by 164 pharmacies.

The Birmingham suburb of Hodge Hill was assessed as the “second most deprived area of England, with Erdington fifth”, and the Ladywood ward, which covers Westside and the city centre, was ranked seventh.


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