They are the forgotten people we can’t afford to forget. They huddle in the shadows and blend into the concrete. Nameless because we do not know them and faceless because we do not see them, they are the homeless, as human as human gets, yet living lives exposed and vulnerable as stray animals.
And yes, the homeless are a minority among us as well. They number about 2% of the combined population of Wichita and Topeka. That makes them the very “least of these,” our fellow citizens, both in numbers and economic status. But to neglect or overlook them costs us a dear price. It costs us the loss of their potential to be sure. Each and every one of the homeless hold within them a promise that is unfulfilled, a contribution unmade.
At GraceMed, we serve several hundred homeless patients each year. Our providers see them for medical conditions that are chronic and severe, painful and life-threatening. We have a homeless outreach nurse, Elana Hauck, who treats patients at a number of outreach sites including Open Door Resource Center, Union Rescue Mission, Harbor House, St. Anthony, and Salvation Army on a daily basis.
“I see a lot of wounds and skin infections,” Elana said. “Then, of course, there’s all the respiratory infections and malnutrition you would expect to result from poverty and living on the street. We’re here at Open Door and other shelters to be where they are, because it’s not always easy for them to get to a clinic.”
The cumulative effect of life on the streets is to reduce the average life expectancy of the homeless by 25 to 30 years. Rochelle Bryant directs GraceMed’s team of social workers who try to help their clients break out of their high-risk lifestyle.
“You don’t have a chance of helping someone out of this life unless you can first get them to trust you,” Rochelle explained. “The bottom line is that any lasting improvements are up to them, but there’s a lot we can do to connect them with resources and give them the opportunity for a better life. For some, all they need is that little bit of help from someone they think really cares about them. With others it can be a long and difficult struggle. But it’s absolutely worth it for them, for the community, and for us, because there’s no richer reward than to see someone turn their life completely around.”
One of the resources available to them are GraceMed’s Outreach and Eligibility team led by Juven Nava. Juven and his navigators are responsible for helping the homeless determine if they qualify for public insurance options. “If there’s one thing that going through a pandemic has shown, it’s that we’re all connected when it comes to our health,” Juven noted. “If we can get more of our homeless population covered under Medicaid, it means greater access to healthcare for them, but also a healthier community at large. And of course, if we can help them reclaim their health, they are in a much better position to reclaim their lives.”
There are those who would like to assess the homeless as a minority of their own making. At GraceMed, we know the problem is more complicated than that. It’s as complicated at it’s roots as the very human story of how each life ends up without a place in this world. But it’s also as simple in its solution as to see Christ in the souls of each lost sheep and serve them as we are called to serve “the least of these.”
This post originated in our State of Grace quarterly news magazine. If you would like to receive the magazine, please visit this link and give us your information. Thanks!