“Our work is far from done”

Optometrist and Vision Care for Homeless People trustee, Elaine Styles, reflects on the achievements of the charity as it marks its 20th anniversary, and shares its ambitions for the future

Anthony Mullally with Optometrist Elaine Styles

Data informs us that people experiencing homelessness suffer a higher level of eye problems than the general population. They need glasses to look for work, find accommodation or simply to keep themselves safe.

There is a clear need for the provision of eye tests and spectacles to tackle the high level of uncorrected refractive error and prevent visual impairment within this patient group: a third of homeless people have never had an eye test and a further third not in the last 10 years. Homeless people are twice as likely as the general population to not have had eye examinations.

The forming of Vision Care for Homeless People

Two decades ago, four optometrists (including myself) embarked on the journey of providing free eye care to vulnerable people. As we mark the charity’s 20th anniversary, this year, we could never have imagined the impact that creating Vision Care for Homeless People (VCHP) would have on the lives of over 18,000 people across the country.

Still operating to this mission today, VCHP provides eye care for vulnerable people in an accessible, friendly environment where they feel safe and welcome. We currently have seven clinics in London, Brighton, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Exeter and Gloucester. And we are about to open clinics number eight and nine in Bristol and Stratford, London shortly, with more in the pipeline.

Each of our clinics is equipped to NHS standard and we hold NHS contracts for each location.

A significant improvement in access will not be achieved until homelessness is made an eligibility criterion for a free NHS sight test and glasses


Festive services

Every Christmas we partner with Crisis UK to provide eye care in London for homeless people. We also support opticians around the country to run pop-up clinics for homeless people, often around the Christmas period.

Since the start we have worked with Crisis, other homeless organisations and homeless health care providers. We all believe in a holistic joined up approach to reduce the inequalities homeless people face.

Together, over the last two decades, we have provided not just eye care, but hope and dignity to individuals who often find themselves forgotten and marginalised. Continued participation, support, and advocacy has, and will continue to be, instrumental in our collective success. By giving homeless people the gift of sight, we have opened new windows of opportunity, allowing them to envision a brighter future.

We have the deepest gratitude to the countless volunteers and supporters who have selflessly dedicated their time, skills, and resources; each one of them has played an indispensable role in transforming the lives of those in need.

The collaboration and support of equipment manufacturers, software companies, glazing labs, frame suppliers, universities, educational companies, professional bodies and practices that we have received represents the power of unity, compassion, and the collective action of the optical industry. Together, we tackle the barriers that prevent homeless people from accessing essential eye care services. We aim to restore dignity, independence, and a sense of hope to those who have been marginalised.

GOS developments

Earlier this year, NHS England highlighted that where a patient has no fixed abode, an alternative address may be used on General Ophthalmic Services (GOS) forms. Clarifying this issue will hopefully lead to more practices offering services to people within this vulnerable group. However, a significant improvement in access will not be achieved until homelessness is made an eligibility criterion for a free NHS sight test and glasses. We will continue to work on the advocacy with the professional bodies to eliminate the eye health inequalities people experiencing homelessness face.

Earlier this year, we were thrilled to announce the news of a massive growth planned in our reach and impact on eye health for homeless people. We are embarking on a collaboration with Specsavers to enable us to open doors to new opportunities to transform the lives of those in need by improving access to eye care for all disadvantaged communities across the UK. We currently have seven clinics and plan to expand this to 24 over the next five years.

Our work is far from done, but with the continued unwavering support and dedication of all the optical industry, we can continue making a profound impact in the lives of people experiencing homelessness. Together, we will reach further, touch more lives, and make a lasting difference in the communities we serve.

Here’s to the next 20 years of transforming lives and building a more compassionate society.

About the author

Elaine Styles is an optometrist, founding member of Vision Care for Homeless People, and a trustee of the charity.