General manager of Vision Care for Homeless People, David Brown, shares details of the charity’s past successes and future goals as it looks to expand its reach across the UK.
When was the charity established and what was its goal then?
Back in 2003, a group of optometrists saw that homeless people had little access to eye care and were unable to get spectacles when they needed them. As a result, they set up the first Vision Care for Homeless People clinic based at Crisis Skylight in London.
The goal is, and always has been, to provide eye care services to homeless and other vulnerable people in an accessible and friendly environment in which they feel safe, welcome and comfortable.
We obtained charity status in February 2007 and two of our founders, optometrists Elaine Styles and Harinder Paul, remain trustees of the charity today.
“Our goal is to expand our branch network to all cities where homeless people are in need. We are currently working with volunteers in Exeter, Liverpool and Leeds to enable us to move forward with this”
What are the key goals of the charity today?
Just as when the charity was founded, we aim to provide eye care services to homeless and other vulnerable people. We know that homeless people need spectacles to aid them with finding work, keeping safe and to help them access opportunities that can help them turn their lives around.
In the last 13 years, the charity has expanded to six clinics operating from homeless day centres across the UK – three in London, and one each in Birmingham, Brighton and Manchester, our latest location.
Our goal is to expand our branch network to all cities where homeless people are in need. We are currently working with volunteers in Exeter, Liverpool and Leeds to enable us to move forward with this.
Currently, we are in the process of expanding our reach to more homeless people with the establishment of a mobile service in East London.
As a charity, we also advocate for better eye care pathways for homeless people as they often miss out. We now know that homeless people are seven times more likely to have a visual impairment than the general population, yet 35% of homeless patients have never had their eyes tested – most would never go into a High Street opticians. We campaign using our own and others’ research. For example, our latest research was presented at the House of Lords and resulted in a communique to the NHS calling for improvements.
What has been that charity’s most successful initiative in the last 12 months?
In 2014, our research on eye health among the 293 people that tested the sight of as part of Crisis at Christmas demonstrated that there is significantly worse visual impairment and ocular pathology in homeless people when compared to the general population. Convinced of the need for the Crisis at Christmas opticians service, we set about making the next Christmas service bigger and better than before.
We recruited two volunteer optometrists as service organisers and, following a review of the previous year, changed shift patterns so that we could send out more mobile optician teams to the various Crisis at Christmas centres across London.
The aim was to bring together professional volunteers to run the mobile clinics, companies within the optical industry to provide equipment and services in kind, and strong project management in order to create an efficient and effective service.
“We are now putting the experience we have gained from running the Crisis at Christmas mobile opticians service into our East London mobile optician project”
In total, in 2015 we recruited a brilliant team of 85 volunteers from the optical profession, including optometrists, ophthalmologists, dispensing opticians, optical assistants and optometry students.
All of the hard work that volunteers put into both the planning and during the week paid off and we experienced our most successful Christmas service to date. During the seven-day Crisis at Christmas opticians service, we tested the sight of 363 people, which was 60 more than the previous year.
In addition to up to six mobile teams going out to centres across London every day, we ran a static clinic with volunteer optometrists and ophthalmologists who had access to state of the art diagnostic equipment. Overall, we dispensed a total of 242 single vision lenses, 68 pairs of bifocals and 82 ready readers. All the supplies, equipment, frames and glazing were donated or on loan from the optical industry.
We are now putting the experience we have gained from running the Crisis at Christmas mobile opticians service into our East London mobile optician project.
How does it feel to be nominated and shortlisted for this award?
Despite having limited resources, we believe that we achieve a great deal with the help of our volunteers and partners, so it’s fantastic when the charity is recognised in this way.