Saving lives by empowering rough sleepers

  • People outside of wheels of wellness van

When you imagine the tropics you think of warm weather, palms swaying in the breeze and beautiful beaches. What you don’t think about is how the tropics is an ideal destination for people who find themselves homeless – because it is more comfortable sleeping outside there than in cooler climates.

With COVID-19 having a significant impact on people’s mental health and financial position, more people are finding their way to the tropics, with nowhere safe to sleep and limited access to showers, food and clean clothes. Not to mention the need to stay on top of their physical and emotional health.

Wheels of wellnessThis is where our charity, Wheels of Wellness (WoW), comes in. We provide an innovative and dynamic model of primary health care to some of regional Australia’s most vulnerable people. WoW provides access to free medical care with GP-led outreach clinics on the streets of Cairns in Far North Queensland.

Our van is fitted out as a GP consulting room and goes out during the day and after hours with a doctor, Indigenous health worker and mental health social worker. They provide holistic primary health care to people sleeping rough, staying in a night shelter, or living in transitional and temporary accommodation.

The focus of the WoW team is to build rapport and long-term relationships with the people we meet on the streets. We actively support those wanting to address their health issues, which may include chronic disease, acute care, pain management, mental health, post-trauma stress, domestic violence, drug and alcohol dependency – and the list goes on.

The WoW team strongly believes that, along with stable accommodation, focusing on holistic primary health care is crucial to empowering the lives of our most vulnerable Australians.

Providing care on the streets of Cairns was not enough for our committed group of healthcare professionals, so we opened our Hub, which is affectionately known as a place of peace. Not only has it allowed a continuity of care, but it also addressed a need for respite for those sleeping rough. There is nowhere else like our Hub, where you can go during the day to rest or sleep safely (WoW has four stretcher beds), enjoy a shower, find clean donated clothes, have coffee and toast and – when food is donated by kind souls – eat a hot meal.

The informality of the WoW Hub plays a significant role in the continuing increase in the number of people walking through the door. People feel comfortable in this space, as they are free to come and go with no questions asked. The team will take the time to chat to everyone who drops in, to gently assess where they are at and what they might need.

Another goal is to keep as many frequent presenters as possible out of the emergency department unless it is an emergency. This has been made possible by our clients’ trust in us. Through building relationships and establishing trust, it becomes easier to make appointments for people to see the WoW doctor, Indigenous health worker, social worker and podiatrist.

In the last few months, several people have openly stated that, without WoW and the Hub, they would have given up on life and would no longer be here. This is both rewarding and humbling to hear. We are proud to support our clients to improve their health and wellbeing, transition into stable accommodation and, for some, gain employment.

Providing medical care on the streets, to reach Australia’s most disadvantaged, is an innovative approach to primary health care that we believe needs to be rolled out across northern Australia.

WoW is funded through the Northern Queensland Primary Health Network.

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