In the University’s Homeless Camp Outreach, students learn to help people “where they are” – and gain compassion in the process.
“Who’s going to the new camps? Who’s going to the levee?”
“There should be plenty of batteries in your bags.”
On a sunny Sunday morning, 14 DMU students and friends assemble in the Academic Center parking lot, chatting amiably while D.O. student Katie Melton’s dachshund mix zips around excitedly. They divvy up coffee urns, Styrofoam cups and a dozen bags and backpacks filled with socks, winter caps, blankets, batteries, cat food and other items.
Thus equipped, members of DMU’s Homeless Camp Outreach (HCO) pile into cars and set out to visit people in Des Moines’ homeless camps.
“I call it global health in our own backyard,” says Sharon Mueller, M.A., family medicine faculty member and HCO adviser.
She and D.O. students Sikander Khan, Rachel Agneberg and Michelle Heaton stop at Krueger’s Amoco on Southwest Ninth Street to fill their coffee urn. Suzie, the cashier, greets them and rings up the coffee, three individual cups of coffee and two bags of day-old doughnuts. The total charge: $3.88.
“The owners know the students are doing this for a good cause,” she smiles.
The group continues south and pulls into an empty warehouse parking lot. Coffee and bags in hand, they mount the levee along the Raccoon River. Nested along the riverbank below lies a camp of tents, tarps, clotheslines, coolers and furniture.
“Hello! Can we come down?” Mueller calls out.
“Sure, good morning!” is the friendly reply.
Many homeless, many reasons
According to the Iowa Institute for Community Alliances, 17,476 Iowans were homeless in 2008, tracked by a statewide information system used by most homeless agencies in the state. More than 6,100 were in Des Moines. Nearly 3,000 more in the city received services – such as in shelters or transitional housing – to avoid homelessness.
“There are so many different types of people who are homeless – families, individuals, the chronically homeless, in shelters off and on, the newly homeless,” says Deirdre Henriquez, program manager of the advocacy team at Primary Health Care Inc. (PHC), a federally funded community health center that offers and helps coordinate services for the homeless.
A number suffer addictions, mental illness, physical disabilities or family problems. The economic downturn and lack of jobs also contribute. Some are second- or third-generation poor or homeless.
“There are as many reasons people are homeless as there are homeless people,” says Joe Stevens of Joppa Outreach, a nonprofit organization that began helping Des Moines’ homeless in 2008. “That’s why we work to end homelessness, one person at a time.”
“Listening to life”
As a first-year D.O. student, Winston Willis often took study breaks “biking in strange places.” He remembers an especially beautiful day when, basking in his ride, he noticed a person “tucked up under the girders” of a freeway overpass.
Willis couldn’t ignore the situation. A former smoke jumper for the U.S. Forest Service, he’d spent his months off volunteering at nursing homes and juvenile detention centers. “I wanted to put myself in positions to meet people and see the world through their eyes,” he says. “It’s listening to life – how you’re going to meet others in your heart.”
It’s also key to a medical career, he says. “Compassion, humility, teamwork and dedication are all part of being professional,” he notes.
In fall 2008, Winston donned a backpack of bottled water and socks and set out to meet homeless campers and survey their interest in visiting with medical students. Classmate Charles “Jace” Taylor joined him. They soon discovered they had more to give than the basics of clothing, food and fuel.
“The thing we hadn’t anticipated was the personal relationships we could have with the people we met,” says Willis, D.O.’11, now in an internal medicine rotation at Des Moines’ Mercy Medical Center. “The snowball was officially rolling down the hill.”
Willis is preparing a poster presentation for the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) in April on how the outreach developed and its “utility as a tool for validating the humanity of the campers and fostering professionalism in our students.”
“As simplistic as it is, my goal is to change the world. And we’ve already done that by changing people’s minds,” Willis says. “We have students saying, ‘I never knew I could just talk to them.’ They will take that to their practice.”
From December 2008 to early December 2009, 71 individuals – mostly DMU students, with some employees and friends – had provided more than 1,050 volunteer hours in homeless outreach, 1,005 of those in the camps. HCO is now a university-recognized special-interest group, receiving modest funding and staff support in coordinating bulk purchases and donations.
“It keeps you really rounded if you work with people different from you,” says Christina Donat, D.O.’12, HCO vice president. “If you can’t understand their situations, you can’t understand your patients. You have to see each person and meet them where they are.”
The students’ views aren’t naïve or romantic. They know some homeless people abuse alcohol and drugs, are dangerous to themselves or others, fail to take their medications or simply make bad choices.
“It can be a weekly challenge,” says HCO President Sikander Khan, D.O.’12. “For example, one [homeless] woman was pregnant, it was cold and she was walking around barefoot. And sharps were all over the ground! But you have to step back and not judge.”
Out, but not down
At the levee camp, Sharon Mueller exchanges a bear hug with Jim, a tall, trim ex-Marine with a broad smile and jovial sense of humor. He accepts coffee from the students and shows them how he’s winterized his tent, by sandwiching a blanket between it and a tarp on top.
Michelle, who shares a tent 20 yards away with her two American bulldogs, strolls up for coffee and conversation. A homeless woman on her own, she contemplates the pale blue sky. She’s waiting for the day to warm up, so she can wash her hair in a bucket.
“I’m so glad it’s a nice day,” she says, returning to her tent. At that moment, the Weather Channel reports the temperature as “42 degrees, feels like 36.”
Mueller asks Jim if he needs anything special. “I lost my sunglasses,” he says. The group laughs as he tries on Mueller’s rhinestone-edged pair.
Jim’s expression darkens, though, as he talks about being downsized in November 2008 from a job he’d loved for six years. Unable to pay rent, he moved to the river last March.
“I grew up middle class – I’d never been homeless before,” he says. “I don’t want to be here this winter. I’ve applied for jobs. When I applied at Taco Bell, the manager just looked at me. I know the minute I turned around, that application went into the trash.
“It’s hard to walk in and put your best foot forward when you look and smell like a river rat,” he adds.
While Iowa’s harsh winters make tenting year-round a hardship, Des Moines has a positive reputation among some homeless for its “strong base of caring, compassionate agencies” that work together to help, says PHC’s Henriquez. PHC, Joppa Outreach and other social service agencies formed the
Street Outreach Coalition to coordinate and leverage resources and services, from shelter options to food stamps to medical care. HCO is a new member of that team.
“The DMU students have done a wonderful, wonderful job,” Henriquez says. “I’m so impressed by their passion and efforts. It’s so important – we want medical personnel to be aware of issues of the homeless.”
HCO members don’t provide medical care to homeless people, but they help refer them to available services and help in other ways. Rachel Agneberg and Michelle Heaton have accompanied their friend Bob – a self-described “urban survivalist” – to his physical therapy and psychiatric appointments. The two second-year D.O. students met him through the University’s Chronic Care Program, which has given them insight on both the medical profession and homelessness.
“Bob has been homeless so many years, his medical records are with doctors in different states. We’ve seen what his doctors have to do to continue his care,” Agneberg says.
When his physical therapist recommended he use a $40 TENS machine to help reduce his back pain, the two women pitched in to pay for it. “Bob and his wife live on less than $150 a month, which puts that $40 in perspective,” Agneberg says. “He was so grateful.”
During a cold snap last fall, Agneberg, worried about Bob, sent an e-mail message around to her classmates to ask for any help they could give. “I got about 30 jackets, boots, shoes, blankets, backpacks,” she says. “The community of this school is so giving.”
She notes, though, that she and her classmates get more than they give in their friendships with homeless people.
“Even with his health and other problems, Bob has a great outlook on life. He’s opened my eyes to looking at a patient as a person, not a stereotype,” she says. “It’s made me so grateful for everything I have and that’s been given to me.”
As Mueller and the three students finish their visits to the levee camps, Khan reviews notes he’s recorded on his iPhone on each person’s needs: size 10 pants for Mary, compression hose for Rick, Ibuprofen for Dave, film for a Minolta camera Bob found in the trash. They smile at the Christmas decorations adorning Al’s “cabin,” made of recycled lumber and other materials.
They comment on the growing chill. The once blue sky is now cloud-covered; the temperature is just shy of the day’s high 45 degrees. They think about Michelle, washing her hair in a bucket.
Most of all, the students think about their friends. Despite the great challenges homeless people face, Agneberg tells other students to participate in outreach efforts with “an open mind and an open heart.”
“If you want to learn, understand medicine, you’ll take away the education of a lifetime,” she says. “You will grow not only as a physician, but also as a person.”
Learn how you can help in your community, or support DMU’s Homeless Camp Outreach by contacting Sharon Mueller.