Posted on: 23 April 2020

Empathy and lived experience have helped Kirsteen McDonagh in her role.

She found herself living in a hostel for a year when she was 18. That experience has lived with her ever since and proved useful in her role as Specialist Health Visitor and Nurse Prescriber for Homeless Families at CNWL.

“I was a single person at the time, but my experience has given me some understanding of how difficult it is for the families I work with. Some of the mothers I work with now are younger than I was when I was homeless and are living in hostels or supported accommodation in Camden with a child. Some parents who are care leavers have had multiple different foster homes before coming in to the hostels or supported accommodation.

“Having that lived experience means I have some insight because I know what it’s like to live in a hostel and I can show them that things can change,” she said.

“When you are without a permanent home it can feel that people can tend to blame you for your circumstances.  However, life happens to people; nobody sets out to be homeless.  It’s important to me that I support these young mothers to help them understand that while things may be difficult now, that’s not how their lives have to be.”

This was Kirsteen’s attitude. Determined to change her life, she went to night school to do an Access to Education course in Politics at 23, allowing her to obtain a place on Criminology and Criminal Justice degree at 24 – graduated with a 2:1 in at 27.

Kirsteen started working as a Band 4 Community Nursery Nurse in a Health Visiting Team in CNWL in early 2008.

Her skills were quickly noted and she was seconded to do a Post Graduate Diploma in Paediatric Nursing, which led to a BSC in Public Health Nursing and a Health Visiting post in Camden where she’s been working since 2011.

For the past four years she’s been working as a Band 7 Specialist Health Visitor in the Homeless Team, which involves working with multiple other services to help some of the most vulnerable families in the borough.

It’s a role that was almost tailor-made for Kirsteen who as soon as she joined the Health Visiting Team knew this was what she wanted to do.

“It felt right to me. It felt helpful and useful in building up these relationships with families. And working with children is something I’ve always done. I love working with them,” she said, “I’m so grateful to my manager Sara Wing for the encouragement and support she gave me to get here. She was the one who led me to thinking that I could be a nurse and could progress to where I am now.”

Kirsteen’s role is multidisciplinary. As a Specialist Health Visitor she provides support surrounding health and providing parenting development and knowledge to parents with children under the age of five. The implementation of the Healthy Child Programme is the main framework.

But given that she works with families who are homeless, the Homeless Families case load of up to 150 families or pregnant women involves working with complex cases who are often single mothers or care leavers. Many have been trafficked, are care leavers, or have escaped many forms of abuse.

She and her colleague Anneke De Jong work with them at a drop in and a play group at the England’s Lane Hostel in Camden.

 “We work on play - things like Storytime or singing – and attachment and bonding and thinking about their children because when people are homeless the main thing on their mind is often housing or other pressures so sometimes it can be tricky to keep the children in the forefront of their mind”.

“We see a higher number of children with developmental delay, speech delay and emotional issues and parents are often struggling to keep those things in mind but we also provide support with health issues like immunisations, minor illness, dental care, safe sleeping and healthy eating, the latter of which is particularly hard when people are struggling to get by financially.

“There can be days when I’m spent and there’s nothing left, and there are the families you will never forget but it helps having good support and seeing the families you’ve supported doing well.”