DOCTORS in Bolton are among the first in the country to ensure the "hidden homeless" do not slip through the net.

GPs in Crompton, Horwich, Ladybridge and Little Lever are making sure they can reach 'sofa-surfers' and those living in temporary accommodation.

Bolton Community Practice, which has the four sites across the borough, has become among the first in the country to publicly pledge to be Homeless-Friendly and ensure their services cater for those with no fixed abode.

The move builds on its work to help the most vulnerable in society.

The 'hidden homeless' are being identified through social services and through how they are getting medical help, such as by going to A&E. They will be helped to sign up to a GP surgery.

Bolton doctors have already signed up to help rough sleepers, set up by Dr Zahid Chauhan from Oldham, but this new initiative is to make sure all those without a permanent address can receive medical help.

Bernie Gildea, director of operations and performance at Bolton Community Practice said: "We are very passionate about caring for patients with very limited finances. Homeless-Friendly will open-up our services to vulnerable people and help reduce the stigma around homelessness."

The practice has special facilities for those affected by domestic abuse and has just appointed a focus care practitioner who visits hard-to-reach members of the community and acts as an individual advocate and expert on health and social care.

Bolton Community Practice says it often sees patients who are battling debt and young people re-locating to escape family breakdown, with illnesses from leg ulcers and painful toothache to mental health and addiction issues treated.

Its partnerships with organisations such as social services, mental health practitioners and the police mean that vulnerable people are often referred to them — and clinicians have been able to issue food vouchers as well as medical support to the needy.

The practice is now looking to work with a local barber to help enhance people's confidence and gain work.

Miss Gildea said: "A nice haircut would sometimes really help boost their self-confidence and ability to look for work."

Dr Chauhan, who set up the Homeless-Friendly programme, said: "When it comes to homelessness, rough sleepers are the tragic thin end of the wedge but there are also vulnerable people living with friends or in bed and breakfast and other temporary digs.

"These people sometimes think they cannot see a doctor because they don’t have a permanent address or may even be fearful about leaving their residence or seeing a clinician because they are fleeing domestic violence.

"We must engage with them, because in the few short months we have been running our campaign, we have met people living in damp, squalid circumstances desperately in need of care for problems like chest infections."

He added: "Bolton’s out-of-hours health service BARDOC was one of the first signatories to Homeless-Friendly and now with Bolton Community Practice’s support, those who are homeless can confidently expect the same quality healthcare that the rest of society enjoys. That is a real boon for the borough and sends out the message that Bolton cares about everyone — including those of no fixed abode."

Healthcarers, companies, charities and businesses have pledged to be Homeless-Friendly and adapt their culture to make sure it caters for the homeless. To join them, email