As a child moving from homeless hostel to hostel, Nicky Tanner never dreamed he would one day be named the recipient of a British Empire Medal.
But that’s just what happened in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours – and fittingly the award is for his work helping homeless people access the NHS.
It is the culmination of years of dedication after he set himself the ambition of becoming a homeless outreach nurse and helping others who did not have the security of a roof over their heads.
Nicky said: “As a child, my mum, sister and I were homeless, living in various hotels and hostels and staying with friends.
“People now would describe it as sofa-surfing but I don’t like that term as it sounds fun and flippant and it is not.
“We were constantly moving around and it was really difficult. I hardly went to school.”
By the time Nicky started secondary school, the family were more settled although still in local authority temporary housing. He began thinking about his future and decided to try and give something back by working in social work or health.
After hearing about a homeless outreach nurse in Brighton he decided that was the perfect role for him and set himself the task of achieving it.
In fact, not only did he take on just that role, working in Westminster and Camden in London, but he went even further, becoming lead nurse for homelessness for central London.
He has spoken at national events and to university students, and his work was recognised by the Prime Minister, who recommended him for the BEM.
Nicky said: “I thought it was a hoax at first, the sort of thing my brothers would do to me. But I was very happy to receive it and the fact that it gives me another chance to talk professionally about how overlooked homeless people are and how difficult it is for them to use the NHS.
“Systems and processes are often stacked against homeless people, and one of my jobs with other Trusts has been to convince people to accept a referral for a homeless patient.
“They often assume they will be badly behaved or won’t turn up.
“That hasn’t been the case at East Kent Hospitals, and I have found people here are very kind and willing to work with me.”
At EKHUFT, Nicky has been able to combine his experience of working with homeless patients into his role as adult safeguarding nurse, and works with colleagues on the wards to improve safety for people who do not have a home to be discharged to.
He said: “The ultimate goal is never to discharge a homeless person back to the streets.
“When we discharge people home, for example with a pressure ulcer or wound, they will have convalescent time at home.
“We can’t send someone back to the pavement in the same state we would send them home.”
Nicky is, unsurprisingly, passionate about educating people about the realities of homelessness and to break down the stigma homeless patients often experience.
But it can be a demanding and draining role.
He said: “You don’t see many wins. If someone who was homeless goes on to be housed you don’t necessarily hear about it.
“If life has fallen apart so dramatically you are living on a pavement then there are no simple fixes.
“Homeless people rarely get sympathy, and there are a lot of people who think it is a choice.
“But none of us who have a happy healthy life would chose to live on the streets. It is a brutal environment and the average age of death is 45 if you are homeless.
“There are so many barriers, from accessing a GP to managing a chronic condition.
“But I’m glad to be able to help improve things, and glad to work with colleagues who want to help me do just that.”