In line with HUD’s Housing First approach to homelessness, BEDS prioritizes getting people into housing; however, we recognize that homelessness causes and exacerbates a range of health problems that make regaining a home difficult. Sixty percent of our clients report a serious health or behavioral health condition, and we’ve invested in programs to help our clients manage their illnesses and disabilities, including adding a dedicated Clinical Director, Community Health Workers, and onsite health and behavioral healthcare clinics at our shelters and daytime support center.
Today, we’re talking to Dr. Jennifer Swoyer, Director of the Family Residency Program at AMITA La Grange. Dr. Swoyer’s been a key partner as we’ve worked with AMITA and Pillars Community Health to provide onsite healthcare and open the Summit Service Center.
Thanks for your time today, doctor. Why did you get involved with BEDS?
The modern Hippocratic Oath says something like, “I will remember that I remain a member of society with special obligations to all my fellow human beings.” I believe every physician has a responsibility to serve their community and ensure its members are healthy and well, regardless of housing, socioeconomic status, or ability to pay. When we embed ourselves with an organization like BEDS, we bring healthcare to vulnerable people who can't get it otherwise. Working with community organizations helps manage healthcare costs too. By getting the right care to the right people at the right time, we’re reducing expenses—and that helps us provide more healthcare for all.
How did you get started?
Three years ago, we started providing basic care to BEDS clients. We came to shelters two nights each month and at the Ogden Avenue Supportive Housing facility for two half days each month. We helped people there keep up on their general heath through basic activities like cleaning wounds and cuts, taking blood pressure, assessing sugar intake, checking prescriptions, and referring them to primary and specialist care. It might seem simple, but it can prevent catastrophic problems.
People experiencing homelessness can be reluctant to seek our and others’ services. Did you have difficulties getting folks in the door, so to speak?
Many people experiencing homelessness have conditions that need attention, but earning their trust can be difficult. They’ve suffered from job losses, difficult family dynamics, exploitation, crime, or other hard situations. They might have had negative or inconsistent interactions with other providers no matter how well-intended. Before we can begin, we need to put forth time, effort, and a degree of humility. Clients won’t trust us if we only meet them once, but if we’re there every week and spend five minutes checking their blood pressure, then we build relationships. When people know we’re invested in their wellbeing, they feel secure coming to us and those we recommend.
Who exactly came to provide care?
AMITA Family Medicine residents. Our residents were already interested in community service, and working with BEDS gave them the opportunity to provide care to people who need it but aren’t getting it. That’s powerful motivation, and it provides moments of clarity, like “this is why I’m doing this.”
Do you remember anything that showed the value of the program?
Wow, there are so many examples. I’ll always remember how we saw a young man in shelter who’d been discharged from the hospital after ankle surgery. He was supposed to be walking on crutches for eight weeks, but that’s not realistic for someone who travels between shelters every day. He had wrapped a plastic bag around his cast, but the hardware was still soaking wet. When we looked at his ankle, we saw his skin had overgrown the stitches. He was risking severe infection, and, eventually, he would have needed an amputation. He’d never been able to return to the hospital for follow up, but we were able to get him in for an x-ray, remove the stitches, and keep his leg intact. It really showed how our being present can immediately improve lives.
Obviously, the pandemic made it impossible to operate group shelter or daytime support center clinics What’s the next step?
I’m excited about BEDS new Summit Service Center. When the pandemic broke, BEDS thought outside the box and analyzed an uncertain situation for us and those struggling with housing and health conditions. They found a glaring gap in how area hospitals care for people experiencing homelessness. People experiencing homelessness would be discharged onto the streets or into homeless shelters; they were left alone to navigate new medications, follow up appointments, and ongoing care. The Summit Service Center will help medically at-risk people experiencing homelessness overcome barriers to recovery, healing, and regaining housing.
We talk about “lowering barriers” a lot. What does that mean to you, exactly?
Driving through our communities, we see healthcare providers everywhere, but we don’t always recognize that many people just can’t get in. We talk about reasons why they can’t as barriers—homelessness, health insurance, prescription costs, unreliable transportation, the list goes on. In a perfect world, these things wouldn’t exist, but, unfortunately, we haven’t gotten there yet. We can help people overcome these barriers by going to high need areas and blending healthcare with the work of trusted community service providers like BEDS. That’s what the Summit Center is all about, and it’s why I’m excited about it.
You can support our Summit Service Center campaign here.