Just a ‘Hello’ for Today – A Day in the Life of our HIV Street Support Team

Our HIV Street Support Team work with people who are at risk of or living with HIV, homeless or in temporary accommodation in Glasgow. The following blog piece by David Findlay, HIV Outreach Support Coordinator is the second blog of our ‘Day in the Life’ series. David gives an insight into what it’s like working in our HIV Street Support Team, beginning to shine a light on some of the challenges people face every day when they are made vulnerable through homelessness and poverty. You can read the first blog in this series here: ‘Is he okay?’.

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m walking down Sauchiehall St. It’s my usual route, and as I make my way onto Buchanan St. I see a guy I recognise heading to his usual pitch. His name is James – I know him from my last job and the one thing that sticks in my mind is how difficult he is to engage with. As long as I’ve known him he would always come in for his needle exchange but it’s been almost impossible to have any kind of meaningful conversation or intervention.

Earlier this week I passed James. I said “hello” and tried to have a chat but he dismissed me with a quick “I’m okay”. One of the most important things about this job is building relationships with people, so I need to have an understanding of when someone is ready to engage and is open to a chat – and even a bit of banter! Even more important when it comes to building relationships though is knowing when it’s time to say a quick ‘hello’ and move on. Sometimes you don’t even stop to say hello, you just do it as you’re passing. You get to know people’s body language – and when you build trust with people over time, they know they can call you if they need to when you’re passing by. Be it for a quick needle exchange or for a chat about what’s going on for them. The important thing is to go at someone’s own pace and respect whatever way they are able to engage with you. When thinking about how difficult it’s been to get a chat with James, even ‘hello’ is progress.

I haven’t had the chance to tell James about what we do yet, but I’m always looking for ways to engage with him when I’m out on the street. Being homeless and injecting in Glasgow city centre means he might be at risk of HIV, so we need to think outside the box when trying to engage with him and encourage testing. Thankfully, our HIV rapid tests can be done in 15 minutes on the street – and you wouldn’t know that’s what we’re doing if you were walking by. So when and if James is open to getting tested, we can do it wherever, however it suits him.

When I get to Buchanan St. today though, I can see James from where I’m standing. Another person who is homeless approaches the same area James’s pitch is located and sits down with their dog, facing James. It might be hard for people who haven’t experienced homelessness to understand but James’s pitch is always in the same location and being in the same location most days gives him a small sense of stability where he might otherwise have none. James didn’t take too kindly to this second person coming into what he saw as his space. Verbal threats were soon issued between them.

Folk walking passed on the street might just see this as an argument but for me and my colleagues on the street team, observing an interaction like this is a chance to break down the barrier between James and us workers – a conversation starter that might connect James with support in a way he wasn’t open to before.

Next time I see James I’ll go and have a quick chat with him. I’ll ask him how he’s doing and make a joke about the battle of the pitches (if appropriate at the time, of course!). It might be another short interaction but it will help sow the seeds of a relationship. Hopefully, in time, James will feel more comfortable engaging with us and might even want support. At least he knows we’ll be around.

For today though, ‘hello’ is enough – the next step will be adding ‘how are you?’.

Thank you to the National Lottery Community Fund, without your support the work of our HIV Street Support Team would not be possible. 

Please note names used in this blog are changed for anonymity.