Street medicine: Bringing health care to Phoenix’s unsheltered homeless
PHOENIX – Expect people who are living on the streets to be exhausted from carrying around everything they own, all the time, Bonnie Ervin told her volunteer trainees.
Also expect them to be hypervigilant, she added, so don’t walk up on them without warning.
Ervin, a social work instructor at Arizona State University, knows how traumatizing life on the streets is – starting at age 8, she was homeless for months at a time. Years later, she still struggles with having a heightened startle response.
Ervin was advising the more than 50 students from ASU, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University she trained in mid-November on how to approach, communicate with and provide basic medical aid to people who are homeless. It’s her way of giving back.
The volunteers’ work is part of Street Medicine Phoenix, a new program created to provide medical outreach to the homeless where they live – on the streets. The help ranges from screenings for blood pressure and diabetes to referrals for physical and addiction services. And whatever helps people experiencing homelessness also improves the public health of the community, program leaders said.
The non-traditional approach serves people who are homeless but not living in their vehicle or at a shelter, a growing demographic in the Phoenix area. According to a 2018 count in Maricopa County, the number increased 27 percent from the previous year, to 2,618 people.
Those who spend time without shelter face unique problems, “with longer histories of homelessness and higher rates of behavioral health challenges,” according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
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