Written by: Justin Zeien, Jeffery Hanna, Jasper Puracan, Jen Hartmark-Hill, MD
In the summer of 2017, co-founders Jeffery Hanna and Justin Zeien came together to design a program that would improve health care access for the homeless population in Phoenix. Modeling the program after Project Safety Net, the vehicle for Dr. Jim Withers’ work with homeless populations in Pittsburgh, Street Medicine Phoenix (SMP) was born. SMP is student-driven interprofessional health care and social justice team consisting of students and faculty primarily from the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, and Northern Arizona University, and serves as an outreach arm of the tri-university Student Health Outreach for Wellness (SHOW) Community Health Initiative. SMP’s mission is to ensure access to quality healthcare for Phoenix’s homeless population living and sleeping on the streets. The vision of the program is to walk side-by-side with an advocate for homeless individuals in the Phoenix Metro area as they strive to overcome personal obstacles and societal stigmas in the pursuit of happiness, well-being, and a home.
The premise of SMP is simple: bring the services to the people. Individuals experiencing homelessness lack access to community resources and health care services for many reasons including transportation limitations, lack of awareness, fear of stigma, and distrust of institutions. SMP was developed to fill this gap by bringing needed but underutilized services to where individuals experiencing homelessness are: in parks, under bridges, in alleyways, and other hard-to-reach locations. SMP also reaches out to individuals experiencing homelessness where they engage with community organizations, such as Grace Lutheran Church and on the Human Services Campus. SMP’s intention is not to recreate the services that community agencies across Phoenix already provide. Rather, our goal is to assess social determinants of health and connect individuals experiencing homelessness to these agencies, providing a long-term solution for their needs and hopefully, helping them become one step closer to finding permanent housing.
SMP’s core work revolves around providing essential health screenings, acute medical care, health education, and information on community resources to individuals experiencing homelessness in Phoenix. This work is accomplished through the development of interprofessional teams. Student volunteers and preceptors represent a variety of professions such as medicine, nursing, physician assistant, social work, public health, pharmacy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and psychiatry/psychology. Interprofessionalism in SMP enables the provision of holistic care to each patient and creates a unique learning environment in which students and preceptors from different professions can learn from one another. In addition, with the help of in-kind donations from several generous organizations across the nation as well as grant monies, SMP has been able to provide hygiene kits, socks, and many other basic life essentials to individuals experiencing homelessness. Recently, through partnerships with the Midwestern University Optometry program and New Eyes for the Needy, SMP has been able to assess the vision needs of Phoenix’s homeless population and provide eyeglasses for those in need.
SMP has evolved into a significant resource for individuals experiencing homelessness in Phoenix. Since November 2018, SMP has organized and conducted 23 outreach events (“Street Runs”) in the downtown Phoenix area. Over the course of these Street Runs, SMP has completed 390 health screenings (e.g., blood pressure, blood glucose) and engaged a total of 268 individuals experiencing homelessness. We have also been able to provide 81 referrals to community resources to connect our patients with long-term solutions for their specific needs. Through support from Terros Health, we have conducted 7 HIV and 2 Hepatitis B screenings. In addition, through a recent budding partnership with Midwestern University Optometry program and New Eyes for the Needy, SMP has provided 24 individuals with vision screenings, 14 with vouchers for free eye exams in the community, and 17 with new pairs of prescription glasses. We will be expanding our outreach throughout the remainder of this year to continue providing health care and other needed services to Phoenix’s homeless population. Future plans include launching heat relief efforts for the Arizona summer, offering Hepatitis A vaccinations, providing veterinary services for individuals experiencing homelessness who own pets and continuing to develop partnerships with community resources and organizations that are dedicated to serving Phoenix’s homeless population.
Working alongside our dedicated volunteers are our motivated and passionate preceptors, who oversee our Street Runs and apply their clinical knowledge in support of our mission. Our preceptors guide student volunteers through the nuances of patient care and provide invaluable teaching. Preceptors have the unique opportunity to mentor not only future physicians but also the next generation of health care providers who will provide care to vulnerable populations through their interactions with students from various health professions. For their teaching commitment, preceptors are eligible for adjunct faculty status at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix. Once preceptors complete orientation and onboarding, they are provided liability coverage through the Arizona Board of Regents.
In our continued expansion and growth over the next year, we will be in need of more volunteers and preceptors, as well as opportunities to connect with more community leaders in the Valley. We encourage Arizona Medical Association members to connect with us. Your clinical expertise and leadership would be invaluable for our teams as we engage with the community and work with this vulnerable population. Furthermore, our volunteers would benefit tremendously from your knowledge and experience in working with the multitude of health conditions encountered in the homeless population. Lastly, this will provide you with an amazing opportunity to confront various social determinants of health affecting Phoenix’s homeless population and work towards the betterment of the Phoenix community. Will you help us better care for and treat Phoenix’s homeless population?