Making the Homeless Healthy

The Second Coming of the Healthy Neighbors Program

The Casa Esperanza homeless shelter became a sprawling public health clinic Monday and Tuesday morning, as Santa Barbara’s various health and social service agencies came together in an all-out effort to vaccinate and screen the homeless population before the winter season’s overnight services begin on December 1st. The three-day event, called Healthy Neighbors, will continue on Wednesday, between 8 and 11 a.m.

As the mornings progressed Monday and Tuesday, 218 Santa Barbara homeless, as well as a few just plain-old poor people, filed through a succession of large white tents erected in front of the Cacique Street center. Each tent, manned by public health nurses and volunteers, served as a station for either TB testing, flu shots, or tetanus boosters. Vaccinations against pneumococcal meningitis — the source of a virulent outbreak in the shelter two years ago — were also available.

Inside the shelter, Family Practice physicians from the Santa Barbara nonprofit Doctors Without Walls, Inc. examined patients individually, either when a health problem presented itself or simply if anyone wanted to see a doctor. Veterans’ benefits counselors, Medi-Cal benefits counselors, and mental health workers were also on hand. HIV testing and counseling was offered in addition.

Ken Williams, a social worker with the county, was a key architect of the program, now in its second year. It’s hard to quantify results in matters of homelessness and health, but Williams said there were fewer deaths on the street in 2005 than there were in 2004. So far this year, 18 homeless people have died either on the street or at Cottage Hospital. One unexpected emergency occurred early Monday when a man seated on the curb of the shelter’s parking lot began having seizures. According to program volunteers, after calling 911, the man admitted he’d bounced off an oncoming train that night in an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Twenty-one registered nurses were on hand, some assigned to the project by Cottage Hospital, some from the county Department of Public Health, some from the Cottage Hospital St. Francis Foundation Parish Nursing Program, and a few from the Neighborhood Clinics.

Children from a Montecito organization called FUND, Families United to Nurture Dreams, filled 250 duffels with clothing, personal care products and food. Each bag contained a personal, hand-made note from a child. One “appreciation bag” was given to every participant.

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