Toni Douglas Gooden, research director at the National Centre for Homeopathy, says that alternative therapy may be a powerful force in helping the homeless get their lives back on track. "We are currently working with Centrepoint and Mind to bring a range of treatments into the homeless shelters," he explains. "Any alternative therapy is about treating the whole person which means engaging with them and making them feel that somebody cares."
Former nurse Betsy Keating is pioneering the ancient science of reflexology at a homeless drop-in centre in Salford, near Manchester. She believes the treatment is not only helping homeless people with specific medical conditions but also easing the psychological pain of living on the streets. "The healing I do here is very real. You are touching people who have had no tender physical contact for years. It is a wonderful experience both for them as a client and for me as a therapist," she says.
The reflexology service was started as an experiment three years ago and is now so popular that there are plans to expand it. Around a quarter of Betsy's clients are homeless or sleeping rough; many others live in insecure accommodation such as hostels, bed and breakfasts or squats. Most have chronic health problems that have lasted for at least a year.
Many of the people who come to the centre have been badly damaged by life and their self-esteem is at rock bottom. "Because I am only touching their feet reflexology feels very safe to them," says Betsy. "They are covered from the feet up so they don't feel at all threatened." She reckons reflexology works on two levels. "Treating their feet makes them feel valued and very often their self-esteem improves. But when they start to relax I can really work on a deeper level with some of the more serious health problems they have."
At 1pm on the dot an assortment of people swarm through the doors, desperate for the hot meal provided by the centre. One or two stop to sign up on a piece of paper stuck to the door of Betsy's makeshift therapy room. A huge man covered from head to toe in tattoos struggles to fill in his name. Betsy beckons him over and he begins to tell me his life story. He stares straight ahead not risking eye contact. His name is Dave and he left home when he was 16 after a family row and has been on the move ever since. For a time he joined the Foreign Legion but he suffered violence, had a nervous breakdown and left. He now lives in a hostel for the homeless and comes to the drop-in centre in Salford to get somewhere to rest, eat and perhaps choose a new pair of shoes. "I wear mine out in a few months with all the walking I do," he says.
It is hard to reconcile Dave with the type of man who might be tempted to try an alternative therapy such as reflexology but he is adamant that it works. "It helps me relax and has helped with my asthma," he says.
Reflexology works on the principle that we all have reflex points on our feet and hands which correspond to every part of the body. Today, because Dave's asthma is bad, Betsy is working on the adrenal glands. This helps to stop the spasms which give rise to wheezing and shortness of breath. She also presses on a point at the centre of his big toe which stimulates the pituitary gland, causing the body's natural painkillers, endorphins, to be released.
Some of Betsy's "clients" have been through serious abuse during their formative years. Keith is 28 and was raped by a local man at the age of eight. Traumatised enough by this experience, he never in his wildest nightmares expected his rapist to find him again. But he did and nowadays Keith keeps on the move "in case he comes looking for me again".
Keith is wary of strangers but finds Betsy's gentle touch has helped him to open up and talk about his experiences for the first time. "The treatment seems to break down their fear. They often tell me private things they have never told another soul," she says.
For some people their lives are dramatically changed. Betsy vividly remembers one young man who was made redundant and suffered a nervous breakdown. He ended up sleeping on the streets and came to the centre world-weary and in a very poor state of health. She could barely touch his feet because they were in such an appalling state and extremely sensitive. The treatment inspired him to take better care of himself and then Betsy started to work more deeply on his reflexes. "With reflexology you work on the whole foot but you emphasise certain problem areas which may need particular help," she explains. "After regular treatments he got a job, found a flat, settled down with a partner and we never saw him again. Obviously not all the people I see are success stories but the relief from the physical and emotional pain which reflexology provides is priceless."
There is more than an evangelical zeal about Betsy. She sincerely feels she is going back to the true roots of nursing with her hands-on style of healing. I suggest jokingly that she may have a Mary Magdalene complex. She laughs and takes it in good spirit. "I love to wash their feet. It makes good sense for hygiene reasons but a large part of the treatment is about pampering them and making them feel special," she says.
A cheerful young woman pokes her head around the door. Joanne is an alcoholic who claims to cover at least 60 miles a day wandering around the city. Betsy shows me Joanne's feet - they are not a pretty sight. Covered in bunions and blood blisters they look as though they need more than a dose of reflexology to sort them out. Joanne assures me, however, that they are in better shape than when she first arrived.
Betsy gets to work pressing the reflex point just above the midline on the left foot which mirrors the liver which, in Joanne's case, has been badly damaged by alcohol. As Betsy works she speaks softly to her. Within three minutes Joanne is in a deep sleep with a look of profound relaxation on her face.
It is difficult to measure how many people receiving treatment at the centre get better. So many of them are just stressed out or have had miserable lives. "At first when they come to see me they are too frightened to let me touch them," says Betsy. "But after a few sessions they begin to feel more valued and they start to communicate more freely.
"The knock-on effect is that they trust people more. They may even start to meet up with people on a regular basis or have a game of pool but they are no longer locked into a world of their own. Just feeling the touch of another human being seems to break some ice in them."
HOW DOES REFLEXOLOGY WORK?
REFLEXOLOGY IS based on the principle that every part of the body is connected by energy pathways which end in reflex areas on the feet and hands. Our ancestors walked barefoot over uneven ground so the nerve endings and reflex points in their feet were constantly being massaged. Nowadays we spend much of our time sitting down and when we do walk it is usually on hard, flat surfaces wearing thick-soled shoes to cushion our feet. By working over the reflex areas in the feet and hands in a precise and systematic way, and by applying controlled pressure, the reflexologist stimulates the body to achieve its own natural state of good health.
This unique technique uses thumb and finger on these reflex areas. The art has been practised for thousands of years - it was first used as a healing therapy in early Indian, Chinese and Egyptian civilisations.
Reflexology always treats the whole person, not the symptoms of disease. Following illness, stress or injury, for example, the body is in a state of imbalance and vital energy pathways are blocked, preventing the body from functioning effectively. Reflexology eases tensions and improves circulation. It can restore the body's natural equilibrium and thus encourage healing.
Contact the Association of Reflexologists (tel: 0870 5673320) for further details.