Background: The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated unprecedented changes in the way that health, social, and housing 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. This study aimed to document the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals who were experiencing homelessness in one city centre in Scotland, and how services adapted in response.

Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with individuals with lived/living experience of homelessness (n = 10), staff within one third sector service (n = 5), and external professionals (n = 5), during April-August 2020, using a rapid case study design. These were audio-recorded, fully transcribed, and analysed using Framework. Analysis was informed by inclusion health and equity-orientated approaches to meeting the needs of people with multiple and complex needs, and emerging literature on providing harm reduction in the context of COVID-19.

Results: Those with lived/living experience of homelessness and problem substance use faced a range of additional challenges during the pandemic. Mental health and use of substances were affected, influenced by social isolation and access to services. A range of supports were provided which flexed over the lockdown period, including housing, health and social care, substance use treatment, and harm reduction. As well as documenting the additional risks encountered, findings describe COVID-19 as a ‘path-breaking’ event that created opportunities to get evidence into action, increase partnership working and communication, to proactively address risks.

Conclusions: This rapid case study has described the significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on a group of people experiencing homelessness and problem substance use within one city centre in Scotland and provides a unique lens on service/professional responses. It concludes with lessons that can inform the international and ongoing response to this pandemic. It is vital to recognise the vision and leadership that has adapted organisational responses in order to reduce harms. We must learn from such successes that were motivated both by compassion and care for those vulnerable to harms and the desire to provide high-quality, evidence-based, harm reduction services.


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Cite as

Parkes, T., Carver, H., Masterton, W., Falzon, D., Dumbrell, J., Grant, S. & Wilson, I. 2021, '"You know, we can change the services to suit the circumstances of what is happening in the world": a rapid case study of the COVID-19 response across city centre homelessness and health services in Edinburgh, Scotland', Harm Reduction Journal, 18, article no: 64. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12954-021-00508-1

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Last updated: 16 June 2022
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