In the years since Poland acceded to the European Union in 2004, the numbers of Polish people now living in the UK becoming homeless and developing a serious drink problem has been on the increase. Without the network of support from family or friends back home many of these Polish migrants slip into a precarious and vulnerable world of sleeping in sheds and garages, drinking large amounts of alcohol each day.
Legislation meant that Poles who had not been in work in Britain for a solid 12 months had no access to benefits and so many, for one reason or another, slipped through the cracks into destitution and homelessness.
Middlesex's Drug and Alcohol Research Centre began a project to find out more about the lives and worlds of Polish street drinkers in London. Dr Anthony Thickett and Mariana Bayley wanted to discover what led these people to homelessness and alcohol problems and what sort of support and services they could access. Working with an interpreter/keyworker, who became a co-researcher, they wanted to understand what was inhibiting this group from accessing support.
The research participants were 12 street-drinking Polish men and women aged 33 and over, recruited via a North London alcohol rehabilitation service provider. Two innovative research techniques were used: participatory mapping and timeline reviews, allowing researchers to tap into deeper experiences and feelings amongst this hard-to-reach group of people. Mariana Bayley explains: "We found little homogeneity amongst the group but heavy drinking was often a feature of participants' lives before migration, though not for all. Some began drinking problematically when they experienced troubles after migrating to the UK. But it was the adverse events like losing a job or an accident that triggered loss of income and eventual homelessness for these people. They showed remarkable reserves of resourcefulness and resilience and found support within their own newer group networks."
It was clear though that homelessness was rare before the participants left Poland and that they were to a large extent unprepared for life on the streets of the UK.
"Drinking problematically did not appear to be a direct cause of homelessness but, coupled with other adversity, was linked to destitution. A lack of recourse to public funds appeared to play a critical role in triggering and maintaining their homeless state." explains Bayley.
The team found considerable barriers prevented Polish street drinkers from accessing help, including poor Polish language provision among services, inadequate help with accessing lost or stolen passports and most significantly a lack of financial help.
"Both general homeless agencies, specialist alcohol services and other services used by these street drinkers have the potential to transform their lives. At a minimum they need good Polish language skills. Beyond this, the workforce within services needs training so they can direct these Polish people to wider support such as helping with documents, health and mental health services. This calls for co-ordination in the way they respond to this vulnerable group," adds Bayley.