“The woman declared that she was all for the building of a drug and alcohol rehab center next to her city apartment except that the proposed height of the building would cast shade on her kale plants and ruin her plants.”

Portland, Oregon was the host of the 2016 National Healthcare for the Homeless Conference and Policy symposium.  I found it to be a fascinating mix of liberal residual hippee mentalities mixed among upscale microbreweries.  A blue city residing in a largely rural red state. The first thing that struck me about Portland was how clean the city was. It’s beautiful to look at with its detailed architecture, Mount Hood peering over you in the background and the Willamette River hugging some of the neatest reformed parts of town. Freshly potted plants sprinkle the windowsills and front door steps of many residential and commercial properties. One afternoon I watched teams of volunteers artistically arrange flowers and potted plants in fancy designs in a local square just for the viewing pleasure of the many young professionals who eat their lunches on the squares surrounding steps. In general there was a sense of calm in the city.

But there was one obvious difference that somewhat shatters the beautiful façade of Portland. Every 6 to 10 feet I encountered a person experiencing homelessness. A man, a woman, a child just sitting on the street. Some of them were clearly high, but many of them were not. One woman sat with a pad of paper and pencil in her hand but was stuck in a catatonic state of waiting for inspiration.  Some of them were panhandling, many of them were not. Children were coloring while their parents made signs displaying their person plight. Many people were laying with their pets. The thing that struck me every day was that for the size of Portland, the number of homeless is unbelievable. Most numbers estimate between 3400-3600 people sleep on the streets of Portland every night. The lack of affordable housing and the lack of enough shelter caused the governor of Oregon to declare a state of emergency which allows homeless to sleep on the street safely without being disrupted by police, business owners or residents. The city has seemed tolerant of this and understanding of the fact that there is simply no where to shelter all of these people.  It does beg the bigger question though.  Why are there so many?

It seems that no part of the city with has been spared by number of visibly a visible homeless. During our travels, we took an informal poll. People working at donut shops. our taxicabs driver, local lifetime residents etc. We simply asked “Why do you think there are so many homeless in Portland?”   Interestingly they all gave the same answer. They thought that because Portland was such an understanding and homeless friendly community, the people (particularly youth) were seeking out Portland as a counterculture experience. There is a pervasive feeling that these that the majority of the homeless in Portland wanted to be homeless for the experience. While many of those that we informally polled recognize that the legalization of recreational marijuana probably his added to the appeal of coming to Portland, none of them could say for certain the size of that effect. The locals seem particularly bothered that there were so many people with seemingly no end in sight. While they admitted that they felt ‘bad for the people’, they were relatively unsympathetic because they felt that this was a situation that has occurred by personal choice. When I attended a breakout session with people representing homelessness from all over the state of Oregon, I told them what the locals told us about the homeless problem in Portland. I asked if they felt that it was true; that there was a counterculture experience occurring and Portland happen to be the perfect place for it to occur. All of those representing Portland on the panel adamantly denied that any of what the common feeling was true. One CEO of a local if you federally qualified health center commented that while the summers are mild, the winters are very cold and rainy and no one would choose to be homeless and stay in Portland. I would say the same for people who are homeless in New England, in Pennsylvania, in Michigan. Many people endure these harsh winters and yet they don’t leave (which has puzzled me for years). There’s no migratory patterns for the homeless to fly south for the winter. While the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle of these two polarized viewpoints, this creates a particularly large problem for philanthropy. People do not donate to a cause in which they feel the misery of poverty is by choice. Frankly, the sympathy factor goes way down and when there’s no sympathy there’s no money. Perhaps some of the most important (and challenging) steps that Portland must take is changing public perception. Porland seems prime for the picking to lead the country in inovative solutions to minimize homelessness.  A combination of finances, a youthful open minded population with well-established social and healthcare services. I look forward to watching this city’s story unfold.  Press on Portland, press on.

Portland, Oregon is a fascinating city situated on the eastern bank of the Willamette River under the watchful eye of Mount Hood.  As with any city that enjoys a river running through it, the bridges that accompany the river become part of the recognizable landscape that defines its character.  Every thursday night, an army of 150 volunteers turn the space under the Burnside Bridge into a hub of activity and services for Portland’s homeless.  I first learned about NightStrike more than 6 months ago as I was interviewing a prospective PA student who was at DeSales for an interview into our 2016 incoming class.  In high school, she had spent time volunteering under the Burnside Bridge with NightStrike and had sited it as a transformational experience that allowed her to see her own city in a different and profound way.  Brett and I were accepted as speakers at the 2016 National Health Care for the Homeless Conference and Policy Symposium in Portland, Oregon and I decided that NightStrike was something I needed to see for myself.

NightStrike is a program run by Bridgetown Inc and was founded by Executive Director Marshall Snider and his wife Lesley Snider (Program Director) 13 years ago. The organization has 5 employees (including Marshall and Lesley) and in addition to NIghtStrike, have developed several programs targeting the marginalized adults and children in the Portland area. NightStrike alone mobilized over 9600 volunteers serving over 20,000 people experiencing homelessness each year. We arrived at a rented church space near the Burnside Bridge around 630pm and immediately upon entering the orientation space, Marshall and Emily (Development Director) welcomed us to the Program. Orienting over 100 volunteers each Thursday is no small task.  I was impressed by the clear and concise message delivered by Marshall to all the volunteers. The purpose of NightStrike is “Because People Matter” and the common denominator that all humans need and desereve love. He pointed out that the volunteer needs the giving experience just as much as the person needs the blanket and encouraged each volunteer to learn the names and stories of the guests being served. To take on an “Oh there you are!”attitude instead of a “Look here I am” attitude. As an organizer of many volunteers, I particularly appreciated this piece because the message of your organization can be inadvertently misrepresented by the volunteers that are so eager to serve. Another staff member performed the reading of the rules (no photography, let religion come up naturally(if at all), show respect) and safety protocols (walk away from anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, three whistle blows means evacuate calmly and immediately etc).  We then broke into smaller orientation groups for our respective jobs. I was assigned to be a hostess while Brett, Laura, Seth and two friends from Ft. Worth were assigned to the clothing cart. After getting the run down, we all walked down to the bridge where, on average, 350 guests await. The path to the bridge cuts through a green spaces with bubble fountains along the river before arriving at the concrete slabs where we would set up shop.  Rows of Home Deopt style 6 ft tables were set up with folding chairs were already occupied by weary men and women. A mobile dental clinic and a separate mobile medical van created part of the perimeter of our space. The Willamette River and four  occupied barber chairs rounded out the perimeter. A food table with hot chili, drinks and coffee was the first stop for most guests. Other services available that night was a clothing table, library table (with new and used books for exchange), pet food table, a sewing table with two sewing machines to repair clothing, sleeping bags, tents and tarps. I even saw one woman repairing a hot dog costume for a dachshund pup that accompanied his owner everywhere.  There was a bike repair stand with everything from air pumps to tire tubes and chains.  5 volunteers carefully washed the feet of travelers while two more gave manicures to the women. A resource table and veterans table provided critical support for people trying to find their way.

My job was to chit chat with guests. I was strangely appreciative of the fact that I was not the health care provider for the night. I walked around with a thermos full of coffee and poured fresh cups for those waiting in line. I struck up a conversation with a larger than life character named George. A 6’3 black man with a large white beard and a fisherman’s hat. He had fashioned a handmade wooden cart to the back of his bicycle that was packed with elaborate handmade birdhouses.  He told me many tales that evening and emphisized the important points by leaning in, raising his eyebrows and pausing dramatically before letting out the most infectious laugh. During our conversation, many ofther guests stopped by to check out the birdhouses. While George didn’t speak to them, it was clear that he took pride in their interest.

Not all guests were like George. As one would imagine, the homeless are as diverse as we are. Some clean, some not. Some with clear responses to hallcuinations, some not. Some sat quietly, some didn’t. Some preached, some didn’t. But one woman struck me. At first glance, she looked slightly out of place with a fairly new looking hot pink fleece jacket, hair styled, and make up applied. I struck up a converstaion with her and on closer look noticed the all to familiar desperate sadeness in her eyes that comes with not really knowing how you ended up here. She did not reveal any of her story to me other than to say that you do what you have to do to survive.  With that, I poured her a cup of coffee and talked to her about the different resources in the city.

Poverty and how a city assists those who are trying to crawl out from a dark place is a fascinating, and often untold tale, of that which makes up the character of a city. Organizations like NightStrike quietly do the necessary not only to empower the guests, but to remind the volunteers that caring about the homeless population is not futile. In fact, a powerful thing happens when people are guided into being part of the solution.  Well done NightStrike. Well done.

Laura, how come you never asked me about Islam?”

I smiled at him. I said because your religion isn’t a factor for me, no one’s deserves to be homeless, especially homeless and blind.

He says to me, “I have been thinking to myself, why is this white Christian woman helping a Muslim black man” he laughs. He then lowers his head and says, “when I came to America, America was asleep. It was a beautiful country, then 9/11 happened and it became so hard for me. ” We sat in silence for less than a minute he turns to me, “Thank you, you are a great communicator and I don’t know how I would ever get here myself. God bless you. ”

Our journey together is not going to be an easy one, we are making small steps every week. Until you have become homeless or ever tried to assist the homeless you will never truly appreciate simple things such as making an appointment with a specialist, getting a pair of glasses, getting unemployment, applying for an apartment….for these people it takes months to obtain any of this. The average individual simply makes a phone call…applies online…gets the information mailed to their house…where does a homeless individual get their mail? What phone number will be called? Who has an email address?

As a nurse I don’t think I have ever felt like such a patient advocate as I do right now in my current career

How did I get here?

Yesterday, I spent 2 hours with a very special individual. He is currently homeless and when the winter shelter closes he has no plans. He doesn’t know where he is going to stay at night. He asks me, will the police let me sleep on a bench here? I sadly said no. He carries with him all his belongings in 2 plastic grocery bags. He smiles at me with his toothless grin and says, that’s OK, I’ll find a place to stay. We get escorted to his appointment room. He can’t help his legs from shaking in the chair, he tells me he has to use the bathroom all the time…not knowing this is partly because his diabetes is so out of control. I kindly asked the nurse to assist him to the bathroom, because in addition to his constant urge to urinate he has also lost his eye sight due to uncontrolled diabetes. He comes back, we discuss his current medical conditions with the doctor and they leave us. He looks at me kindly, says..you know, I have had several jobs, UPS truck driver, a cab driver, and a CNA. I have traveled the world been to Europe, road tripped across America…originally from Africa, I’ve seen a lot of things and places. But no place compares to America, you have so much available to you in America. It is the greatest country in the world, but it is competitive. If you are not competitive you will lose. I was not. Oh, Laura, how did I get here?

~ Laura LaCroix

 

Today I watched a woman and her boyfriend go “shopping” in our donations room….they have been wearing the same outfits for 2 weeks. They were so grateful for everything we had to offer. I was asked several times, “can we have this?” Every time I smiled and said of course..as they sorted through the items I heard them constantly say to one another, we don’t need that, leave some of those, this is amazing…

You see this couple had a rough past, burned the bridges with their loved ones, the only bridges not burned are through current drug users. They sought out help at a rehab. When they started dating they were kicked out of rehab…tossed to the streets. All of their belongings were kept at the rehab and they have nothing.  They didn’t want to speak badly about the rehab because they felt it had truly helped them. They are now staying in a winter shelter. How do we expect people to stay clean&sober? They fought the fight of withdrawal, found support and are put to the streets. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to stay clean facing the circumstances these people have to face. It’s very sad to me…we lack support in the areas that we need it most, for the people who need it and want it..

This couple, they told me not to worry, they found love and are going to support each other through this mess. I assisted them in getting clothes, hygiene products, nail polish…just so she could feel normal again…

And thank to the person who donated the Uggs…she was ecstatic, you would have thought she won the lottery as she screamed with joy. I wish you could have seen her face.

~Laura LaCroix, R.N.

The (EM)powering media

Posted: April 22, 2016 in Uncategorized

Every time an interview is requested, a reporter calls, a camera crew is invited-it is a difficult decision to make. Media has power. Or should I say the ability to EMpower when done right. Yesterday I received an email from an acquaintance who saw a homeless man in his usually spot who looked like he had lost weight and had a mass on his abdomen and didn’t know who else to tell. Brett got a call from someone who just learned that her coworker was homeless and living out of her car and didn’t know who else to tell. Media sheds a light in places where is was dark. Or rather helps you see what you have been looking at everyday on your drive to work. And that is why sometimes we say yes. This movement is really about you and asking you to act in some way to take better care of each other. Thank you for answering the call.

The vastness of need can seem endless.  When Brett and I started the DeSales Free Clinic, we had some experience under our collective belts to try to guide the creation of something that would be both meaningful and sustainable.  As it grew, so did our awareness about the larger problems facing the homeless population. Things like personal safety, humiliation, lack of affordable housing and lack of institutional loyalty.  It became easier to figure out reasonable treatment plans that actually had a chance of working because the context of their lives were so much clearer.

At some point, we started to become aware of the needs of other vulnerable and disenfranchised populations that were all around us. Human trafficking victims.  Domestic violence. Veterans. We learned that recently released inmates are 12.7x more likely to die within two weeks of release from prison than someone else living in their same state (Binswanger, NEJM,2007).  I still sometimes feel like a young PA student at Midwestern University all over again learning about the people that we share our world with but know very little about.  It is like standing in a dark room with the door closed. Then, someone turns on the hallway light and you see a small bit of light spread over onto your side of the carpet. Who turned on the light and who is on the other side of the door? Do you crack the door open and peak quickly? Do you fling the door open and boldly shout “Who goes there?”. Or do you retreat from the door and figure whoever turned on the light, didn’t really mean for you to see it anyway.  I think of the door as status quo.  It is always there and it is always accepted both socially and professionally. These populations often give us opportunities to engage them. They flick on the light in the hallway to see what happens to the door.  But all to often, we choose to retreat from the door and maintain the status quo.  The door never opens. Soon enough, the light turns back off and all goes back to the way it was.  But sometimes, someone flings the door wide open and invites the light in. Sometimes the door is opened by a patient. And sometimes the door is opened by a provider.  As it turns out, the light, in fact, is hope. And hope is just about the most powerful thing two people can share. A patient of Brett’s commented that he let the light in for her for the first time. Perhaps it was hope for her but little did she know that her willingness to let the light in  provides an understand that allows the light to be shared with others and the status quo to be challenged.

 

 

Snowpocolypse. Snowmaggedon. Holy -Snow-Batman! Whatever you call it, the snowfall over the last weekend was historic. But something else was happening in Allentown while we were all watching from our windows and marveling at this weather phenomenon.

On Saturday morning, with 9 inches of snow already on the ground, the Warming Station in Allentown sent it’s overnight guests to the streets because they are only operational at night. If it had not been for a local pastor, these people would have been left to try to find a public building to shelter in, a business that was trying to remain open that would allow for loitering or an abandoned building that perhaps no one would be looking for trespassers in. And what about the people who were not at the Warming Station the night before who may not have known about the good Pastor and his open doors?  How could a Warming Station staff street their guests who would need a plan to endure another 10-20 inches of snow before the Station opened again?

It really made me think about whose ‘problem’ the homeless people really are.  Why are there only a few who will take responsibility or, dare I say, ownership over  ‘their’ problems? Are we societally too stoic, compartmentalized and self-determined so that we believe that those who face a blizzard alone and homeless should have thought about that before they ‘made all their bad choices’? Are we worried about becoming too involved, caring too much, knowing too much only to find that there are too many one-way, dead end streets in our society? Do we fear the futility that comes with knowing without being able to act?

It would be easy to blame the operators of the Warming Station for streeting these people in the face of an impending Blizzard. These stations are opened on the heels of a public health concern.  Who wants to have citizens of their town freezing to death on their streets? But it is also a public service based on the principles of justice and beneficence. So how could people be left to fend for themselves in these harsh conditions? Dr. Jim O’Connell, founder of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and a Harvard trained physician issued guidelines on temperature associated health risks to the homeless. The bottom line is that while water freezes at 32 degrees, human flesh is at risk for freezing at just 40 degrees. Often the greatest risk occurs when the ambient temperature is warm during the day and then drops drastically at night. From a business standpoint, a warming station could say they don’t have funds to pay for staff to be there during the day. They don’t have a food source there. Maybe they don’t have permission to keep the building owned by the Park and Rec Department open during the day. There are a hundred other reasons that they could come up with and some might be true. But the truth of it is, it doesn’t matter. These are people and they needed shelter. Could there have been a solution? A work-around?

The gravity of this current snow situation for the homeless is likely not to be understood for some time. But with each challenge must come insight and solutions to minimize risk the next time around. First, is the issue of the Code Blue designation. The Code Blue designation is issued by Lehigh County Emergency Management when temperatures dip below 32 degrees. The Code Blue status is supposed to be posted on the Lehigh County Emergency Management website but currently does not indicate a Code Blue listing. Today is a high of 26 and a low of 9, certainly we meet criteria. ‘Code Blue’  isn’t a searchable term on their website and it is difficult to find any information about what this designation really means. Anecdotally, I can tell you that local shelters loosen their admission criteria and put people any where they can as a temporary measure. The most current listing of Code Blue places available on the internet is from 2014 and basically contains a list of local shelters. Shouldn’t this designation allow for other buildings owned by the City to remain open as a public health measure? And why is the temperature cut off 32 degrees when data supports danger starting at a temperature of 40 degrees?

Second, those who are in the business of providing shelter as a public service should be held accountable for their actions. Many of these shelters and warming stations receive monetary support from citizens, government, grants etc. who expect that they are providing the service of warming and shelter.  You are accountable to your stakeholders. Is the city of Allentown responsible for sheltering these people or are they relieved of their responsibility because they funded another entity to provide this public service?  Take the example of our local hospitals. Healthcare workers slept in the hospital and shoveled on-ramps on 78 in order to get to work because the hospitals take their responsibility of being prepared for patients despite weather or any other natural disaster. The hospitals require it and the healthcare workers abide by it because of their moral responsibilities to their patients. Another example is the accountability of disaster preparedness where organizations accept risk for the greater good. Successful organizations balance between risk and preparedness with the ethical principles of justice and nonmalifecence. These preparedness documents should be well thought out and easily implemented. Just as in disaster preparedness, when running a winter shelter, one must be prepared for winter weather.
Finally, there is the humanistic aspect. In times of trial when human lives and dignity are on the line it is ALL of our responsibility to care for those in need.  If you’ve accepted the public commission to care for the most vulnerable, you can’t abandon that post in the worst of times. At the same time, if you haven’t accepted that post in an official matter you aren’t absolved of your moral responsibility. This weekend in Allentown that is exactly what happened. Although not bound by grants or funding, Zion Church opened their doors to those most in need of sheltering from danger, just as they did in 1777 when they “housed” the Liberty Bell, keeping it safe from the British during the Revolutionary War (www.libertybellchurch.org).  Let it be a lessoned learned; that true responsibility comes from within.

Gift giving.  Tis the season for the imagry of Christmas presents under a carefully decorated tree or eight stacked presents to represent the eight nights of Hanukkah. Having small children seems to make the season especially charming. But admittedly, sometimes this season can be challenging for people who work in the homeless community. The contrast between the haves and the have-nots is often stark and blinding.  All providers and advocates have to find that delicate balance in their lives between doing the work and going home to a life that is in such contrast to the life of our friends on the street.

We recently introduced a ‘vulnerable population curriculum’ to the PA students at DeSales. We talked about homelessness (of course!), global health, refugees, human trafficking and spent a lot of time challenging them to think about what it means to be ‘vulnerable’ and how that affects health.  During a series of reflection papers, a student exclaimed that he liked these activities but they were so depressing- who knew of all the things happening in the world. For a moment (or perhaps longer), he wished to live in the world where he eyes were still closed.

His comments though, really made me think.  How is it that there are people who chose jobs in which they take on the burdens of others. A friend who works in Oncology gets asked often – “how can you work in that office! It must be so depressing!”.  Many clinicians have occasional patients who have a story that will stop you in your tracks. Their story tends to haunt you for a few days before enough ‘regular stories from regular people’ wash away the traces of horror you felt a few days before.  But what about people who take on the horrors and traumatic experiences of many individuals at the same time. I think about people like Mother Theresa or Jack Prager ( who has been doing street medicine since the 70s in Calcutta, India) or Jim Withers (father of street medicine in the US).  The things they have seen and heard, the grief they have shared with their patients all while maintaining sanity, faith in humanity and a wicked sense of humor (especially Dr Prager!).  And somehow, seeming to find themselves in the midst of the chaos.

The word compassion derives from com- meaning ‘together’, and pati- meaning ‘to suffer’.  I often interview candidates for PA school admission who describe themselves as ‘compassionate’. When I ask what they mean by this, they usually answer that they are caring or empathetic. It isn’t a completely wrong answer but it isn’t completly right either.  There is a difference between feeling sad for someone and suffering with someone. And frankly, one is more exhausting than the other because it makes us vulnerable too. I think that much of the work we do in street medicine and with vitims of human traficking calls on providers to suffer with another person. And honestly, sometimes it isn’t easy. Often what is spoken about ones experiences have never been said to another soul.  It is a fragile truth that often can begin to free the speaker from the guilt and shame that comes with holding a secret for so long. I think some people, like Jack and Jim and many others, have been given the gift of suffering. An ability to see a world that has been so cruel to people but still resolve in the hope that exists for each them.  It is in these examples that we look to find the gift of suffering within ourselves. Each relationship is an opportunity to do more than just listen and leave, but to share, survive and hope with our friends.

The Great Equalizer

Posted: October 23, 2015 in Uncategorized

Statistics surrounding the number of physicians pursuing MBAs always seems to baffle me. From a distance, I think about how much schooling a physician endures (yes, I do mean endure) and debt incurred. After some time in practice, there is a shift in some to seek higher levels of administrative purpose. Department chair. Service line coordinator. CMO. VP of this, VP of that. Acronyms that I can’t even describe much less understand. Sometimes it is hard to wrap my head around this pursuit of upward mobility. Traditionally physician assistants share a common philosophy: we see patients. We do it in a variety of ways, in a variety of locations. But most PA’s don’t graduate and consider upward mobility as part of their job satisfaction or career plan. While there have been more administrative positions being offered to physician assistants as they gain decades of experience, it is certainly not the norm in most hospital systems. Physicians, however, have different choices to make in this regard.

Over the years, many people have passed through the shelter and soup kitchen based clinics. Often their feedback is similar. This is the way medicine should be. No red tape. No coding. No drama. Just good, simple medicine. We don’t pay any of our volunteers and we don’t beg them either. It is the simplicity of providing truly patient centered care, without time constraints, bundled payments, matrices and check lists, that keeps them coming back. Our philosophy in the clinics is that we are all equal parts of a team. Just like our patient philosophy, everyone matters. If staples need to be picked out of the carpet, the task will not immediately be assigned to the person with the least number of initials behind their name. Folks who aren’t interested in such credential ambiguity usually don’t last too long. For a time, I thought of these Clinics as a great equalizer. Egos in check while the patients get checked. But this isn’t entirely true. Even in the Clinics, titles are still prevalent- doctor, PA, student, nurse, volunteer. There is nothing wrong with identifying yourself (and we must so that patients are clear about who is treating them) but we have to be honest that titles place a degree of separation between us and our patients and often as soon as the words leave our lips, we are trying to find common ground to narrow the separation.

Enter street rounds.

As mentioned in previous posts, most of the rough sleepers of the Lehigh Valley retreat into the woods. Safer. Discreet. Remote. Invisible. While some of the street rounds are done by the LVHN street team on the streets of the Valley, most of them are done in the woods and under bridges (with an occasional storm drain thrown in for good measure). Participants in street rounds have included many interested parties over the last year; none of which are more fascinating than administrators. I don’t dislike administrators. In fact, they are critical to the health care system and to giving real legs (and the necessary teeth) to out-of-the-box programs like Street Medicine. The administrators who have come on rounds knew first hand that to really understand programs and patients like these, you have to see it. And as the saying goes, seeing is believing.

The woods are really the great equalizer. During street rounds, everyone is on a first name basis. No matter what the title or degree held, status is check at the edge of the wood. Maybe the uneven terrain makes us feel vulnerable. Maybe it is the starkness of the humble camps and being acutely aware of how incapable of survival in these conditions we would be. But most likely, it is our street friends who share their stories willingly. The humanistic experience that makes you realize in real-time that we are more similar than we are different. They see the faces and hear the stories of simple unmet needs and complex social histories that lead to what they see. It truly and respectfully on the backs of these survivors that Street Medicine is deemed necessary.