On any given Wednesday night, rain or shine, Pershing Park transforms from a simple park into a bustling congregation of doctors, nurses, other volunteers, and folks in need of food and medical attention. A similar transformation happens most Fridays on East Ortega Street, when the Women’s Free Homeless Clinic opens its doors to women in need of everything from food and supplies to medical attention and counseling.
The organization responsible for the operation of these as well as two other clinics, at Alameda Park and in Isla Vista, is Doctors Without Walls – Santa Barbara Street Medicine (DWW – SBSM). Founded in 2005 by Dr. Mimi Doohan, this independent, nonprofit organization has grown into a flourishing collective with one goal in mind: serving the underserved in the greater Santa Barbara area.
Santa Barbara Street Medicine has approximately 150 volunteers altogether, including the medical professionals. Why do they do it? “Because it’s the right thing to do,” said Jason Prystowsky, a physician at Cottage Hospital and the medical director of Santa Barbara Street Medicine. This simple mantra holds true for all of the volunteers; they all have a passion for serving marginalized and vulnerable homeless women and men.
According to Trevor Mells, the organization’s communications coordinator, being homeless puts people at risk for a wide variety of medical problems. “Our target population is the most vulnerable of Santa Barbara County,” he said. Arguably, the most vulnerable folks are also the least likely to seek care. This is why Santa Barbara Street Medicine has a policy of treating anyone who approaches at any of the clinics. “We do not turn anyone away from our clinics; everyone who comes to us in the park will receive free medical care. In 2011 we treated roughly 1,600 patients in all four of our clinics.”
Santa Barbara Street Medicine had humble beginnings. Cassie Sontag, a 25-year-old medical student at the University of Southern California, recounted her experiences while standing in the rain at the Pershing Park Clinic, stethoscope around her neck, in 2007. At that time, there were only three volunteers from the UCSB Street Health Outreach, the student partner of Santa Barbara Street Medicine. “Those volunteers delivered supplies to the homeless population on the streets out of their backpacks,” she recalled. “We used to have very few volunteers. Now there is a waiting list.”
Alex Iteen, a 21-year-old student at UCSB in his senior year, standing in the shadow of the Pershing Park amphitheater, reflected upon the reasons that he decided to volunteer with Santa Barbara Street Medicine. It gives him boots-on-the-ground experience, he said. “I volunteer with DWW – SBSM because it is a productive and helpful organization. I also get valuable educational experience with medicine.”
Doctors Without Walls – Santa Barbara Street Medicine also operates in rooms that do have walls. Stephanie Durfor, RN, is the medical director of the Women’s Free Homeless Clinic. “I was a public health nurse for Santa Barbara County,” said the 30-year resident. “I left to teach nursing at Santa Barbara City College. Volunteering here allows me to be involved with public health nursing.” Durfor can often be seen attending to patients alongside Jorie Nilson, a retired nurse practitioner and a former Peace Corps officer. Volunteering at DWW – SBSM allows her to stay committed to her passion for service.
“My heart has always been with the underserved,” said Nilson, amid the hubbub of the Friday morning clinic. “When I retired, I wanted to give back to the community. If everybody does a little bit then a lot will get done.” Nilson volunteers primarily at the women’s clinic, which is a “female-only, nurse-run clinic.” She is actively engaged when she is at the clinic and enjoys talking to the women, who, in addition to receiving medical attention, can relax, watch television, and enjoy a hot meal.
Occasionally, men can be found at the Women’s Free Homeless Clinic, including Dr. Joseph Pineda, who goes by “Dr. P.” to the patients. A UCSB graduate and a podiatrist, Dr. P. volunteers his services free of charge. “I just show up and take care of everything that I can. Do what you can do, you know?”
The women at the clinic all speak highly of Dr. P., as well as of the entirety of the volunteer staff. Lynne, a writer and a resident of Santa Barbara since the 1960s, spoke about the staff with tears in her eyes. “The people here are so wonderful,” she said, dabbing the corner of her carefully made-up eyes. “You come here, and you have people who will listen to you and give you the facts about your health.” Lynne became homeless suddenly when she lost her job and found herself without the means to afford a place to live. However, at the women’s clinic, she has received acupuncture, counseling, and foot care. She is writing a book about her experiences.
Joanie Sullivan, MFT (licensed Marriage and Family Therapist), is a native of Santa Barbara who provides counseling to the patients at the women’s clinic. She spends her Fridays listening to the women tell their stories and gives them advice as to how to cope with their situations. “I want to try to lighten the load for homeless women, whether it is for an hour or for a day. These women are so vulnerable. By listening to them, I can honor and respect their journey.”
For more information about Doctors Without Walls – Santa Barbara Street Medicine, call (805) 722-2234, or visit the group’s website at santabarbarastreetmedicine.org.