by Kristen Hannum
September 27, 2017
Elizabeth Gern, resident service coordinator at several of Catholic Charities’ affordable housing developments in Southeast Portland, frets on a Tuesday afternoon that she may have to drag one of the residents to see a visiting nurse the following morning.
Judy Van Deusen’s wrist is still red and swollen, the result of a cat scratch from a few days ago.
Van Deusen and her partner Greg Chase have lived at Esperanza Court since 2009 after being homeless for three years.
Why wouldn’t Van Deusen seek out the nurses on her own?
“I have no idea,” Gern says.
“It’s just not that bad,” says Van Deusen later that evening, offering up her swollen wrist.
It’s not that Van Deusen doesn’t trust or appreciate the nurses. A visiting student nurse from the Oregon Health and Sciences University’s School of Nursing may have saved her partner’s life in January 2016.
Van Deusen had described Chase’s symptoms to the student nurse, who was immediately concerned that it might be untreated diabetes. The nurse was right and Chase’s condition warranted a trip to the hospital.
That visiting nurse program is a partnership between OHSU and Catholic Charities, one of many partnerships between hospitals and other organizations, both governmental and nonprofits, that have become more common in Oregon.
The goal is to alleviate homelessness, joblessness and poverty, thus investing in health and the community.
In the Portland metro area, Providence Health and Services is part of the Healthy Columbia Willamette Collaborative, a public-private partnership that brings together 15 hospitals, four county public health agencies and two coordinated care organizations. They completed their second needs assessment of the region July 2016. One of their findings was that 24.4 percent of area youth are living in poverty and that more than 14 percent of respondents had experienced homelessness and/or a lack of safe and affordable housing.
“Our Catholic mission compels us to look at and understand the needs of the marginalized,” says Dave Underriner, chief executive of Providence’s Oregon region. “We’re also committed to caring for the whole person.”
That means that the homeless person with a wound who is treated in a Providence emergency room may need a voucher for a motel room because it’s impossible to keep a wound clean on the streets.
“So they don’t just disappear once they’ve left the hospital,” Underriner says.
Beyond that, “homeless” and “healthy” don’t compute.
“We know stable housing improves health,” says Underriner. “So we’re looking at partnerships to play a role in achieving that in a much deeper way.”
There’s a commitment, Underriner explains, to work together with other organizations whose expertise is getting people housed, for instance, or getting people jobs.
Providence is partnering with a five other healthcare nonprofits and Central City Concerns to support housing and medical services. The partnership’s slogan is “housing is health,” and it is building three projects not unlike Catholic Charities’ Esperanza Place and similar devopments — although one of Central City Concerns’ buildings will have a notable difference.
The Eastside Health Center, which includes housing for 176 people, will serve medically fragile individuals and people in recovery from addictions. It has an attached clinic and will offer 24-hour medical staffing on one floor.
“If I could wave a magic wand I’d have an onsite health clinic here,” Gern says wistfully, then immediately turns to the positive. “Well, we’re close with the nursing students.”
Other Providence partnerships have resulted in mobile dental van services, summer meals program for children and, through a partnership with Kaiser Permanente, improved access to mental health services for marginalized populations.
Providence is also staffing three community resource desks in their facilities, one in Seaside and two in the Portland metro area. Social workers staffing the desks help anyone coming in find help with anything from paying utility bills to filling out food stamp forms.
“Catholic healthcare is holistic,” says Underriner. “We believe in boots on the ground. Those resource desks have bilingual social workers helping people. One of the problems is that when you’re in a crisis you may not know where to turn. The community desks can help.”
For a sizable percentage of the homeless population, it’s not just a matter of getting a roof over their heads. Many need support services — health care, therapy and job training, for example — to build their lives back up again.
That’s where Gern at the Catholic Charities housing units comes in. She helps residents with all sorts of needs, from filling out complicated forms to finding solutions to truancy and even getting Judy Van Deusen to see a nurse about that wrist.
“The efforts are commendable and they’re good,” says Rob Justus, parishioner at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Southeast Portland who is a longtime advocate for the homeless. He’s also co-owner of Home First Development, which develops affordable housing projects.
“Unfortunately, we’re only addressing the tip of the iceberg of the problem,” he says. “We need everybody stepping up. Collectively, as a community, we’re still falling short.”
The numbers prove his point. Statewide, the most recent counts should 13,000 Oregonians are homeless on any given night of the year. About 4,000 of those are in Multnomah County. The city of Portland estimates an additional 12,000 are doubled up in the city, staying with family and friends, often in unsafe conditions.
It’s not only Portland, not only Oregon.
Nationally, one out of every 30 American children was homeless at some point during 2013. That’s 2.5 million children, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.
“On the national level, it brings up the question of how much support is coming from the federal government,” Justus says.
The speakers at a recent OHSU/Portland State University forum on homelessness all pressed a central point: The crisis in homelessness diminishes everyone — not just the homeless — and the way out is housing.
“It’s a question of political will and what we want for our beloved community,” said Ryan Deibert, who works in public health with the City of Portland’s Joint Office of Homeless Services.
Underriner is hopeful. “More and more we’re seeing, through the Catholic Health Association, a more concerted effort for Catholic health organizations to be involved in shaping discussions in our communities. Everyone has a role to play.”
To read the article on Catholic Sentinel’s website, click here.