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Helping those in crisis

Working the past four years in what many think of as a thankless job, Paul Esplin is exactly where he is meant to be. And where he is needed, writes Annie May.

With a car for an office and seeing people at the lowest moment in their lives, one wouldn’t be surprised if Paul Esplin wasn’t at least a little jaded.

But he isn’t. Not even a little bit. Instead the HESTA Australian Nurse of the Year remains optimistic and finds great reward in helping even one person, for one moment.

Esplin works with rough sleepers in the inner city. Many are living with severe mental illness, developmental delay, intellectual disability, drug and alcohol addiction and/or social isolation.
“It can be hard, but every now and then things work out and you know you’ve made a difference. People can surprise you. There is hope. It’s a very rewarding, unique and interesting way to work,” Esplin said.

As The Michael Project Nurse for Medibeat, a program run by Mission Australia in partnership with the St Vincent’s Hospital Homeless Health Service, Esplin works with clients on the street, in laneways, parks, drop-in centres and crisis accommodation.

“My car is my office. I am called in by outreach workers and I make my own rounds. Often you start by asking people if they are feeling OK, do they need water or blankets? Do they want to detox? This can open up discussion on particular needs,” he said.

His role involves time on the street checking clients’ health and ensuring their basic needs are met, through to arranging medical appointments and referrals, guardianship and court matters.
“This sector is a pressure cooker. There are finite resources and huge needs. We have to remember equal access to services is a social justice issue,” Esplin said.

“Some of our clients have been homeless for 30 or 40 years. They have very complex needs and organisations don’t always know what to do with them.

“These clients don’t have the right forms or fit into services’ criteria. Some are illiterate, often without a valid Medicare card, and they need a lot of help to get through this to reach a better, healthier place in their lives.

“But there can be really good outcomes. A long term homeless client recently started a technical course. He has a computer and an iPhone and he is back in education, enjoying life again.”

Esplin said some cases could be quickly dealt with, for example families living in cars to escape domestic violence, but most took a long time to resolve.

“Sydney is a tough city for accommodation even when you’re working. The priority wait list for the Department of Housing is one year.”

Esplin has helped identify missing persons and reconnect them with their families. In one case he was able to reconnect a terminally ill client with family members he hadn’t seen for more than 20 years.

“Mental illness plays a huge part in homelessness, as well as drugs and alcohol, but the thread that runs through nearly all the clients is poverty. That’s the one common element. I don’t know any client who has had good opportunities in life or schooling.”

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