VULNERABLE people using Chester’s homeless hostel will undergo an annual ‘health MOT’, as well as enjoying cookery lessons and the chance to take up art and yoga.

The schemes form part of a fresh approach spearheaded by a new health co-ordinator at the city’s under-threat Richmond Court facility in Boughton.

Jess Doyle has joined the team at Foundation Enterprises North West (FENW) – and she has grand plans to boost the physical and mental health of the vulnerable people the organisation helps.

Jess started in April, having worked on major projects at London homelessness charity and housing association St Mungo’s for four years.

In an exclusive interview with the Leader, she and service manager Sarah McGrady said that improving the health and lifestyles of vulnerable people is of paramount importance, regardless of how homelessness services in the region changes next year.

Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWaC) is recommissioning the service and proposing to close Richmond Court from April 2018 in favour of having smaller, scattered properties.

Richmond Court was opened three years ago and has 37 accommodation units and 10 direct access ‘safe seats’ for rough sleepers to use at night.

Jess told the Leader that many of the health issues facing homeless people were the same in Chester as they are in the capital, but said she had been impressed with the co-ordination and multi-agency work here.

Whereas in London people were often discharged from hospital onto the streets, this rarely happened at the Countess of Chester Hospital due to the efficiency of local support services.

She said one of the biggest challenges was encouraging homeless people to engage with medical services at all.

Sarah added: “The perception is that homeless people fill up A&E but it’s the opposite in our experience – the issue is getting them to access medical services because of the stigma they face and feeling judged.

“It’s a big challenge for us getting them to acknowledge they need medical help and then getting them to access it.”

Jess said one man had finally been persuaded to attend hospital for an X-ray and blood tests after struggling with serious pain and discomfort.

Doctors found he had lesions on his lungs and an abscess on his back, which were successfully treated. He has been discharged and is making good progress.

“It’s really turned things around for him,” said Jess.

The annual health MOT will see all Richmond Court residents given a check-up, plus a health passport which will detail their medical history.

Action plans will be drawn up for each person to tackle key issues, including substance and alcohol abuse – a common problem.

“It’s often a means of survival, of getting through the night,” said Jess. “Alcohol is a big one as it takes the edge off. It’s street life.”

Sarah said they had noticed a spike in people using psychoactive substances, formerly known as ‘legal highs’.

Local reports indicate 10 people had been hospitalised and one had died in just one day this month after taking products such as Spice and Black Mamba, which mimic the effects of better known drugs and leave users in a ‘zombie-like’ state.

CWaC is heading a multi-agency team with police, charities and health professionals to tackle the issue, which it says predominantly affects rough-sleepers.

“In the past couple of months it’s been high on the public health agenda,” said Sarah.

“It’s concerning because of the serious dangers. All we can do is educate people and help them access support services.”

Poor nutrition is another issue Jess is looking to address with a new 10-week cooking programme for residents.

It aims to teach the basics of food preparation, hygiene and budgeting. Some people have to live on as little as £74 a fortnight on Jobseeker’s Allowance.

“Nutrition is generally poor,” said Jess. “We recently encountered a man who had only eaten one sandwich in five days.

“It can be down to issues with benefits or prioritising other things. There’s also a general lack of knowledge about cooking and eating well.”

Sarah added: “Some don’t even know how to boil an egg. We've had to go back to basics with the new programme.”

Mental health is also a major focus for Jess and Sarah, who say current waiting times for access to NHS services is too long.

It is hard enough to get people to engage so waiting times of five to 10 weeks for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – as was the case for one woman in recent weeks – are just too much.

To address mental health, Jess has started up 'health ambassador' groups at Richmond Court that allow people to meet and openly share their experiences.

A consultation with FENW's customers revealed they would take part in activities such as art and yoga that acted as therapy.

Classes in both have now been set up and are proving successful.

“We’re listening to them and giving them what they want,” said Jess. “We’ve had some wonderful successes.”

Sarah said she could not comment on the future of FENW’s service in the region until the council made its final decision later this year.

“We will adapt to what’s required,” she said.

“We’ve bent and reshaped the service since we came under contract. These services have to be flexible, they can’t be stagnant.”

But she added: “There is certainly a nervousness among the customers here as they don’t know where they are going to live.”

She said there were some services provided by a larger hub that possibly could not be replicated with a model of smaller, scattered facilities.

FENW has invested £40,000 in a dedicated respite and medical facility that offers treatment and end-of-life care for seriously ill people.

“That room has been really effective,” said Sarah.

“We had one man with a terminal illness who was able to be comfortable and with his friends when he died. He didn’t want to be on a hospital ward, he wanted to be in this building.

“It was a very dignified end and he was in control.

“A lot of homeless people end up dying alone in hospital sadly.”

A £10,000 grant also allowed the organisation to create a medical facilities room, which is attended by an array of healthcare workers every week to help with anything from skin ulcers to sexual health concerns. It also boasts a facility for residents to have video-call consultations with their GP.

Sarah added: “We would be very sorry to leave Richmond Court - it's done so much good for people.”