“It’s about overcoming some of the myths or misunderstandings about homelessness”

Bryony Allen, professional services manager at Specsavers, speaks about the organisation’s partnership with Crisis and its wider homelessness initiative

glasses on homeless person

What is your involvement in the partnership between Specsavers and Crisis?

I had worked with Crisis for four or five years, prior to my employment with Specsavers, as part of the Crisis at Christmas London service, which has been going for years. I started off as a clinician, donating my time and expertise and performing eye tests. I then became a service organiser with Vision Care for Homeless People and Crisis, creating the service rather than delivering it. I joined Specsavers four or five months ago, and one of the first things in my inbox was the partnership with Crisis. Because I had the experience of the London service, I was given the function of clinical lead. Implementation, and clinical governance, guidance and oversight is the part that I play in this project.

How do you see the partnership working and unfolding, and what are you hoping to achieve?

There’s a three-pronged approach to our homelessness initiative. The first is with the Big Issue [Specsavers will sponsor tabards for Big Issue vendors and facilitate free eye care and ear wax removal].

The second is our partnership agreement with Crisis, for which we have a five-year plan to support growth of outreach clinics, to support optical healthcare initiatives.

The last is our practical participation and making vulnerable care a core part of activities that we as a group participate in on a local level: the active implementation of our own local initiatives and support, in association with Crisis, but taking it that step wider as well.

Crisis, for example, doesn’t operate in Ireland. So, it’s about going bigger and wider, extending those services and bringing increased discussion around the need within the industry, raising the profile of that need and highlighting where people who are homeless and could be eligible for NHS services can’t access them. Also, highlighting the emotional and psychological challenges that might mean that somebody in that vulnerable position feels unable to access a service or perhaps feels unwelcome in some way. It’s about our support in overcoming some of those obstacles and challenges.

Could you speak about the practical work that will be undertaken at a local level? What will be happening on the ground?

The exciting part, which we’ve provided at pace, is the introduction of five regional clinics this Christmas. Crisis London has had an eye care service and in direct link to the partnership, we are now in a position to expand that to five regional sites, with the hope that that becomes a framework that can be expanded further – not just to further sites in future Christmases, but to further sites all year round, with the engagement of local Specsavers teams.

Our Christmas services are not just about providing an eye test. We will also be providing glasses free of charge to the people who need it. It’s a complete one-stop solution, whether that be a product, two products, or a referral on to a specialist. It’s not a half-hearted ‘let’s see if your eyes are okay. They’re not. Now you need to go and do something off your own back.’ It’s a complete journey for these people.

Is there a particularly enhanced need for this in the context of a cost of living crisis?

Absolutely. It is reported that we’ve all been, for some time, one or two pay packets away from dire straits. That really is only going to expand with the cost of living crisis: the rise in the need for food banks, people becoming increasingly nervous about their rent or their mortgage, and the emotional and practical pressures that can lead to finding yourself in a very vulnerable position.

There many types of vulnerability that aren’t just being somebody who is living or sleeping rough. It’s the hidden homeless, and it’s also the understanding that this isn't something that people bring upon themselves


It’s about overcoming some of the myths or misunderstandings about homelessness. Homelessness is not just rough sleeping. Homelessness is sofa surfing, or being in temporary accommodation. There many types of vulnerability that aren’t just being somebody who is living or sleeping rough. It’s the hidden homeless, and it’s also the understanding that this isn't something that people bring upon themselves. It’s something that could happen to any of us. Unfortunately, there is a very real risk that this is much more likely than we might like to think. It’s that understanding, appreciation and empathy that comes from that for the public. It’s about educating and drawing attention to that and supporting that knowledge in order to support solutions.

Through this work you are aiming to remove the barriers that people experiencing homelessness face when accessing health care services. What are those barriers, as you see them?

Crisis refers to people using its services at Christmas as ‘guests,’ and I think that is a beautiful terminology for that group of people, as opposed to ‘patients.’ It’s much more friendly, and I think half of the story is that education and understanding for professionals that this person is a person too and they are a guest to your kindness and your service, in whatever you’re able to give and to deliver.

The other half of that is that the boundary comes from feeling welcome, being apprehensive about what the cost is going to be, and knowing whether things are going to cost money. What happens when I turn up, and what happens when I do this? What’s going to be the outcome? There is a potential that that’s just too overwhelming and too much to think about when you’re already in a very vulnerable position, and so it gets left to the last thing on the list and therefore never happens.

Crisis has a quote from one of its guests from previous years: “I never bothered going to get my eye test, because I knew it wasn't worth it.” Where does that mentality and that psychology come from? That’s the barrier: there are things going on that mean that these people feel that it's just not worth it, for whatever reason, and we want to break that down. It’s that value as a human being, that you’re just as worthy to get my time and my clinical knowledge as any other person.

It’s that value as a human being, that you’re just as worthy to get my time and my clinical knowledge as any other person


Why was Specsavers keen to get involved with Crisis specifically?

This is seen by Specsavers as a natural evolution: the coming together of thoughts and ideas where the time was right and things fell into place. Particularly understanding and seeing the economic challenges and the political instabilities at the moment, the time really was right to step things up.

What have you got planned for 2023, once the Christmas work is completed?

It’s a five-year partnership, and the objective is to reflect and learn from those five clinics, to get the feedback and to analyse what went well and what could be better in the future. And then, to look to support all our colleagues and partners in delivering localised regional services, whether that’s in partnership with charities or not, depending on whether that charity is available in that location. To be able to break down those barriers on both sides so more people in this vulnerable position gain access to the health care services they need.

A person who is vulnerable and homeless has the same challenges as anybody else. If you or I couldn’t see, could we go to work? Those challenges are there for anybody suffering, and we want to make things as easy as possible for everybody, and particularly those who are less able to access that care in a standard way.