As an undergraduate student at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, Mudassar Sandozi was part of a campus organization that raised money for small loans. They were distributed by the international nonprofit organization Kiva to poor people to start or grow businesses, go to school or access clean energy.
“I’ve always been interested in helping people with low socio-economic status,” he says.
That’s why he was intrigued, when he began DMU’s osteopathic medical program in 2017, to learn about the University’s Homeless Community Outreach. HCO is a campus club whose members seek to establish personal, caring relationships with homeless people around Des Moines in which their dignity and humanity is validated. HCO activities include visiting area homeless camps every week, educating volunteers about the lives of homeless people and partnering with other local homeless outreach programs to connect resources to people who need them. Sandozi decided to sign up.
“I felt like I wasn’t pushing or challenging myself enough,” he says. “This was an opportunity to do that while helping some people in the community.”
It’s also been an opportunity to learn about disparities among people experiencing homelessness. Sandozi decided to dig deeper into that issue with a neighborhood study he conducted for his spring Foundations of Physicianship course, part two of a four-semester curriculum for DMU’s osteopathic medical students that focuses on the development of their identity as physicians. Part two emphasizes the role of sociocultural factors in medicine with a broad view of what it means to be culturally competent. In addition to learning about health disparities, students become awareness of their own cultural assumptions and biases, and they work to develop skills in transferring this knowledge and awareness to patient care.
For his study, Sandozi made eight two-hour visits to homeless people living near the intersection of 16th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, the so-called “MLK Campsite” near downtown Des Moines. He observed patched tents of various shapes and sizes, some surrounded by makeshift fencing, each linked in a crisscrossing network of worn dirt paths.
“I watched this site grow from four individuals in one tent and a roadside truck, trying to make it through a bitter winter, to a sprawling 20-tent campsite split by fencing into three distinct divisions,” he wrote in his paper about the study. “The direct causes cited by the people I spoke to for their homelessness included losing a job and thus the ability to pay rent, domestic abuse leading them to leave the living space they shared with their abusive partner or having to sacrifice money for rent to pay for their medical bills.
“Ironically, individuals could improve their living situations only after their physical conditions deteriorated to the point of no longer being able to work,” he continued. “Homeless individuals who were able to gain assistance into apartments either experienced a stroke while homeless or were supported by their low-paying jobs via workers compensation after a work-related accident. I came away with the impression that governmental agencies or private business policies dictate the lives of these individuals and confine their choices.”
Other challenges he observed were how to keep warm in the winter, maintain healthy diets, obtain adequate supplies of bottled water and simply stay safe. He saw the homeless people coping with these weighty issues by helping each other and accepting the help of local churches and other charitable organizations. He learned about available resources he could recommend to people. A bigger takeaway, though, was the ability to express empathy and acceptance.
“I don’t want people to feel they have to defend themselves to me,” he says. “I’m more comfortable and can have conversations with a homeless person, but I’m not numb to their situation. I think that will help me be more open with and accepting of people in my practice.”