Santa Barbara’s homeless are coming in from the streets, parks, and parking lots this week to attend the only health fair of the year aimed specifically at them. Starting the day before yesterday, in a series of tents outside the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter, area homeless and people living in Single Room Occupancy hotels (SROs) have been receiving immunizations, blood pressure checks, tuberculosis tests, and an array of other preventive health services for free.
The fair is called Project Healthy Neighbors, and this is its fourth year of operation. Homeless advocate Ken Williams, the project’s key organizer, said on Tuesday, November 18, when there was still one more day to go in the three-day fair, 350 people had been served, already exceeding last year’s total of 348 residents.
The overarching goal of the fair is to prevent an epidemic from breaking out in the winter shelter when it opens next month. Five winters ago, an outbreak of pneumonia neccesitated a visit from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials. Project Healthy Neighbors was founded the following November.
Last year, according to Williams, three cases of tuberculosis (TB) were identified at the fair. That in turn alerted public health officials to the possibility of a wider presence of the infection, a suspicion borne out by further testing of the homeless population. A total of 11 cases of the highly communicable disease were ultimately identified, Williams said.
Paul Rodriguez, 54, was sweeping up debris outside the shelter Tuesday. He lives in an apartment. But several months ago, he had a seizure while crossing Carrillo Street, fell, and was run over by a car. His leg was shattered from the ankle to the knee. Because he couldn’t care for himself, and could not work, Casa Esperanza gave him a medical bed at the shelter. Tuesday, he received a flu shot and TB counseling from Donna Velasquez of the County Public Health Department.
But it’s not all needle sticks and alcohol swabs for the residents who show up. Families United to Nurture Dreams, or FUND, has provided 400 backpacks to the project, one for every resident who renders his or her arm to the nurses for immunization. The packs contain a sweatshirt, a pair of socks, a knitted hat, a rain poncho, and various toiletries. Free haircuts and shoes were also provided. The haircuts, from Underground salon, and the shoes-375 pairs-were a gift from the organizations Soles4Soles.
Williams said outreach workers from Casa Esperanza and the county were driving around to various spots frequented by the homeless and encouraging them to attend. He and Lynn Jahnke, MD, a physician who works at the shelter, were planning to make rounds later Tuesday night to do the same.
“We’ll guilt trip them big time,” Williams said with a sheepish smile.
The project is a collaboration between the County Public Health Department, Direct Relief International, Cottage Hospital, and other nonprofits. Williams said he serves as a broker, getting as many entities to donate as possible to the event.