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Mobile Clinic Looks Out For Detroit's Homeless


It's not exactly a house call, but in Detroit a new program is targeting homeless people in need of medical help. A mobile medical team visits the homeless on their turf, including follow-up visits, to make sure they get the medicine and care they need.

Michigan Radio's Kyle Norris reports.

KYLE NORRIS, BYLINE: A brown van pulls up to a liquor store in Detroit. Some med students, a nurse practitioner and homeless advocates pop-out.


NORRIS: The team approaches Patrick Harris. He's wearing a bright orange hat and sitting on the curb near a dumpster. They've seen Harris several times, and they're treating him for a urinary tract infection.

CARPENTER: Those half pills...

PATRICK HARRIS: Yeah, I still got them.

CARPENTER: Do you feel better on it?

HARRIS: I feel the same,

CARPENTER: Still the same?

NORRIS: That's nurse practitioner Dean Carpenter who's leading a group of Wayne State University med students in this project they call Street Medicine Detroit.

Sal Calo is a med student who tenderly sits down next to Harris to take his blood pressure.

SAL CALO: My name is Sal.


CALO: S-A-L, that's right.

HARRIS: Wow, Sal. OK.

CALO: And your name is Patrick?

NORRIS: Calo says people often open up and tell you what they're worried about when you take their blood pressure.

Another student asks Harris some basic health questions and learns that he drinks one pint of vodka, every day. Harris complains that his legs are swelling. Sal Calo tells him they want to treat his condition. But to get a more thorough treatment he needs to get covered by Medicaid.

CALO: We're all trying to help you out, so...

HARRIS: OK, I appreciate your help. Thank you. I appreciate everything you're doing for me.

CALO: Hey, man. I'm glad to.

NORRIS: The program specifically targets people like Patrick Harris who are chronically homeless, uninsured and don't try to get medical help.

Jonathan Wong is the tall and soft-spoken medical student who started Street Medicine Detroit last year.

JONATHAN WONG: Physically going out to be able to meet them on their own terms on the street, and re-integrate them into society, is what we're really after.

NORRIS: Wong says he's learning a lot by working in the field. He's also starting to see that the continuity of care they're delivering with this model holds real promise.

WONG: This isn't, sort of, an operation that we want, where it's like medical students going out willy-nilly and seeing patients, like, once and never sort of following up ever again. It's not meant to be medical student tourism by any means.

NORRIS: Wong says building trusting relationships with the homeless is the key. And that's where this guy comes in.

PHILLIP RAMSEY: My name is Phillip Ramsey. And they sometimes call me the Street Ambassador. I know just about everybody homeless.

NORRIS: Ramsey works for a non-profit called Neighborhood Service Organization. He's a former drug addict who was once homeless. Rumor has it he can find any homeless person in the city. Now Ramsey is a kind of liaison who helps the homeless feel more comfortable, and hopefully more trusting of the med team.

Back in the parking lot, he grabs a man walking by who appears to be homeless.

RAMSEY: I don't know him but I said do you want to come over and get checked out? He said, Look, I'm dying anyway, why should I?

NORRIS: That attitude is not uncommon for people who constantly worry about food, shelter, and just staying safe. Many of the people they see on the streets have severe mental health issues, or a physical illness, or an addiction. And sometimes they have all three. By finding people before they become seriously ill, they can save lives and prevent the misuse of ambulances and emergency rooms, the only place health care for homeless people is often provided.

Street Medicine Detroit followed-up with the man in the parking lot, Patrick Harris, several times. And they became more and more concerned about his health, but he resisted getting services or housing. Then Harris suffered a cardiac arrest.

For every Patrick Harris, there's a story of someone they did help. Like a homeless vet I met. Street Medicine Detroit helped him get medicine for diabetes, a doctor's appointment, and register for an apartment - all within one day. With tears in his eyes, he told me he can't believe that people care.

For NPR News, I'm Kyle Norris.


GREENE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kyle Norris got her start in radio as a Michigan Radio intern. Her features have appeared on The Environment Report, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The Splendid Table, World Vision Report, Justice Talking, and The Health Show.