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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