An open letter…

Posted on: 30th January 2013

To Whom It May Concern

Re: Mary N, DOB 23/01/1945

I am on writing on behalf of Ms Mary N. Mary is homeless and destitute. She is also living with HIV. She registered with Body & Soul last week. She is in the position where she has nearly died due to the apathy and stigma against HIV in our society. She is in urgent need of your empathy and understanding.

Mary came to the UK in 2002 to visit her brother. She lived and worked in London for several years, supporting herself and also sending money back home to support her children in Malawi. The youngest was 14 at the time she left the country. She started becoming ill in 2010, having dizzy spells and feeling generally unwell. Her friend took her to a private hospital, as she believed she was not entitled to access NHS services. Mary was diagnosed with HIV but did not have money to afford private treatment. She continued for two more years without taking any medication and became extremely unwell. Mary had to stop working, as her job – cleaning in supermarkets – was extremely physically demanding, and she was too weak to continue.

Mary became destitute and had to give up her accommodation, staying with various friends over the next several months. She eventually became street homeless and began sleeping on night buses, spending her day times in shopping centres. When she ended up sleeping rough in Victoria station, she was picked up by the police, who reported her to a Home Office. She now goes to sign on every two weeks.

About two months ago Mary began receiving support from a homeless day centre. As she has ‘no recourse to public funds’, they were not able to get her shelter but at least managed to find her a warm, dry place to stay at a hostel in the area. Mary does not have a bed there but sleeps in a chair in the dining room. This is extremely detrimental to her health, as she suffers from severe arthritis and can only walk with the use of a stick. Nonetheless, Mary remains immensely grateful for not having to sleep on a bus or in the train station anymore.

The impact of her social situation on her health is enormous. In addition, as a result of not having had access to appropriate treatment for several years, she suffers from several debilitating health conditions. She experiences excruciating pain that radiates from the right side of her head down to her cheek and jaw. She also has severe thrush of the tongue, making it impossible to swallow even the softest of foods. For example, on her first service evening at Body & Soul, she was not able to eat a dinner of lentils and rice because even this would have been impossible to swallow. The only food she is able to tolerate at the moment and her only source of energy are biscuits dipped in hot tea.

Mary is able to get breakfast and lunch at the homeless day centre, but not her evening meal. She also has no way of sourcing money to attend medical appointments, travel to the Home Office signing centre, or find the funds to regularise her immigration. As a result of a recent policy change, she is finally able to access life-saving HIV medication on the NHS and has begun the long road towards better health. However, all progress is extremely slow and hard won. Any hope of improvement continues to be compromised by her insecure housing, her hunger, her isolation, and her utter and complete destitution.

The saddest part of the story? Mary’s complete resignation to being a second-class citizen in this harsh, affluent, indifferent society of ours. The smallest gesture of kindness – a hot cup of tea, a gentle smile – is enough to move her to tears. Accustomed to harshness, ignorance and shame, she expresses immense gratitude for any and all assistance offered. Living with the double stigma of a frowned upon and misunderstood illness, combined with an insecure immigration status has resigned her to invisibility at best and cruelty at worst.

She is a perfect exemplar of the consequences of society’s hardening attitudes towards migrants, towards those requiring health care, towards those who most need our help. If her story would ever make the newspaper headlines, she would not be celebrated for her resilience or remembered for her selfless love for her children, propelling her move thousands of miles across the world to afford them a better future. Instead, she would be labelled as a “health tourist” who has come to “abuse our free NHS”; a “bogus asylum seeker” coming to abuse our “soft” immigration system and as a lazy scrounger unwilling to work or to find accommodation.

I hope that I have been able to outline Mary’s current situation and the dire circumstances that lead to this plea. Her story broke my heart open, and I hope at least in a small way it will touch yours.

If you need any further information, or perhaps if you are moved to do something about Mary’s situation and that of so many other members at Body & Soul, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Yours sincerely,

Livia Ottisova

Head of Adult Programmes

Body & Soul

PS: Mary would love to tell you her story herself, but knows this would mean becoming shunned and ostracised by her remaining family and the people who know and support her at the homeless centre; in short, her tiny but absolutely crucial community. This is why I am writing on her behalf. Her name and identifying details have been changed to protect her confidentiality.


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