How the determination of three Optometrists to provide for those less fortunate grew into an amazing charity offering expert eyecare to the Homeless.
Can you tell us when Vision Care for the homeless was started, and who was the founder, and what was the initial driving force behind the charity being created?
Vision Care for Homeless People was started by three optometrists sixteen years ago. Our Founder, Elaine Styles had volunteered to go into one of the Crisis at Christmas centres prior to that to test eyes and provide glasses to homeless people. Harinder Paul, another of our Founders and also a Trustee, saw the lack of access homeless people had to eye care and suggested setting up a year round clinic, in London.
What areas of the country do you cover?
Our volunteers run eight opticians’ clinics for homeless people: three in London, plus Brighton, Birmingham, Manchester, Exeter and Leeds. They operate usually weekly within homeless day centres where our clients are comfortable and are not embarrassed accessing the service. We are currently opening new clinics in Stratford and Cardiff.
How is the charity funded?
We hold NHS contracts for each of our clinics. However, only a third of homeless people when they come to see us are eligible for NHS funding, so to provide our service free of charge we make up the difference by using volunteers, through gifts in kind and with charity fundraising. A third of our income comes from the NHS, a third from charitable trusts and a third from individual and corporate sponsors.
You are changing people’s lives for the better every day, but what has been your proudest moment working for the Charity?
I’ve been with the charity five years, but early in my first year, with no prior experience in the world of opticians, I found myself organising the Crisis at Christmas Opticians Service. Back then we ran two shifts each day and each time sent out several teams of volunteers with eye testing kits to the Crisis Centres across London. It was exhausting but very rewarding. I was going home on the night bus in the early hours of the morning, then getting up at 6am to go back to the warehouse to do the same thing again for a week. The volunteers did 300 eye tests and provided 350 pairs of spectacles that year. These days we have two fantastic volunteer Service Organisers, both optometrists, who run the week much more efficiently. They work just as hard though.
How do you organise enough volunteers for what you need to do? And how does the volunteering work?
We try and have a local lead team for each of our clinics. They oversee the operation and support the volunteers. The volunteers who go into the clinics are optometrists assisted by lay clinic assistants who we train up. Some volunteers help occasionally, others such as clinic managers may be in the clinic every week. We have over 100 volunteers and growing. We sometimes have to cancel clinics because we don’t have a volunteer optometrist, but what we say is even if you can only test once a quarter you are still welcome to join the team.
What are your hopes for the future of the charity?
We have developed a growth strategy using our own and others published research, drawing on our experience of running opticians for homeless people for 15 years and in consultation with homeless people. We estimate there is a need for at least 20,000 eye tests per year amongst homeless people in England. We currently meet 9% of that need, but aim to be reaching 40% in five years.
Our new plans include:
- Having 21 clinics operating in cities around England and Wales within the next five years.
- Partnering with high street opticians enabling them to offer accessible eye care for homeless people.
- Running a mobile opticians van which will travel to areas of need and address gaps in provision.
- With our partners in the Homeless Eye Health Alliance, to continue informing government and working with NHS England, to improve the opticians’ contract regulations and ensure homeless people get fair access to eye care.
Have you seen a significant rise in homelessness, and has this effected how you work or your resources?
There has been an increase in homelessness and we see life getting more and more difficult for homeless people. For the last 15 years, we have tracked the percentage of our patients who are eligible for a sight test paid for by the NHS. We have seen that percentage dwindle to 27% which tells us that homeless people face multiple barriers in getting the eye care they need. Our raison d’être is to step in and provide an eye test and glasses free of charge. And we want to start new clinics so we can help more homeless people.
What can people do to help Vision Care for the homeless?
Members of the public like to support us by doing sponsored challenges and there are some suggested ones on our website.
For more information or to donate then please visit: http://www.visioncareforhomelesspeople.org/