'They already operated like it was a crisis, because it always has been a crisis': a qualitative exploration of the response of one homeless service in Scotland to the COVID-19 pandemic

Harm Reduct J. 2021 Mar 3;18(1):26. doi: 10.1186/s12954-021-00472-w.


Background: The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated unprecedented changes in the way that services are delivered to individuals experiencing homelessness and problem substance use. Protecting those at high risk of infection/transmission, whilst addressing the multiple health and social needs of this group, is of utmost importance. The aim of this novel qualitative study was to document how one service in Scotland, the Wellbeing Centre run by The Salvation Army, adapted in response.

Methods: Care was taken to identify methods that did not create additional stress at this pressured time. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with Centre clients (n = 10, in-person and telephone) and staff (n = 5, telephone), and external professionals (n = 5, telephone), during April-August 2020. These were audio-recorded, fully transcribed, and analysed using Framework. Service documents were used to enhance contextual understanding. Analysis was informed by theories of psychologically informed environments and enabling environments.

Results: The start of the pandemic was a time of confusion, disruption, and isolation. Centre staff rapidly adapted methods of engagement to provide a range of comprehensive physical and emotional supports, to both existing and new clients, through telephone and online communication and, eventually, socially distanced in-person support. This involved balancing the risks of COVID-19 infection/transmission with the benefits of continuity of support to those highly vulnerable to a range of harms. Whilst the pandemic created many challenges, it also facilitated removal of barriers, particularly concerning provision of harm reduction services which had previously been severely constrained. Clients described the Centre as a 'lifeline', providing stability and safety during a period of profound disruption when other services closed their doors. Strong leadership, intensive team working, support/training for staff, a focus on relationships, and active use of client feedback, enabled responsive adaptation to fast-changing demands and the creation of a 'culture of care'.

Conclusion: This study provides a unique insight into the pandemic by analysing the response of one homeless service during the height of the pandemic. We present a range of implications that have international relevance for those designing policies, and adapting front-line services, to proactively respond to COVID-19 and the continued public health crises of homelessness and drug-related deaths.

Keywords: Alcohol; COVID-19; Drugs; Harm reduction; Homelessness; Pandemic; Scotland; Substance use.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 / prevention & control*
  • Female
  • Harm Reduction*
  • Homeless Persons*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pandemics
  • Qualitative Research
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Scotland
  • Social Support*