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In Denver, Mobile Clinic for the Homeless Returns

NewsHour with Jim Lehrer | PBS
March 16, 2011
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Two weeks ago, Ruby Lau was in a lot of pain. The homeless 45-year-old woman had severe heartburn. She couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep.

“My throat was on fire,” she said. “And no matter what hit my stomach, it wouldn’t stay down.”

Luckily for Lau, last week she happened to be at The Gathering Place, a daytime drop-in center for homeless women in Denver, when a mobile health clinic run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless arrived. The Health Outreach Program vehicle is an extension of the organization's downtown clinic. It travels to other homeless shelters and facilities to offer on-site care, from vaccinations to wound care.

Onboard, Lau saw a physician who diagnosed her with acid reflux and gave her a prescription, all without an appointment and at no cost -- much more quickly than she could have gotten in to see a doctor at another clinic.

“I would have suffered for another two weeks if that van had not been here,” she said. “It was just like ‘Oh, thank you, God. Thank you, God.’ I just can’t tell you how much of a blessing that was to have that van here.”

That was the first week that the mobile health clinic had been back on the streets since state budget problems cut funding for the Health Outreach Program last year. The NewsHour reported on the mobile clinic's funding troubles last March.

While the mobile clinic was off the streets, the homeless rate in Denver continued to rise and so did the need for health care, says Dr. Judith Wilson, CCH’s medical director. One of the mobile clinic’s goals is to connect patients to regular primary care at CCH’s downtown clinic to keep them from resorting to costly emergency room visits.

Each year, the mobile clinic treats about 2,200 patients and costs $250,000 to run. The cost to treat half that many patients in emergency rooms is about $1.65 million, according to the coalition.

Wilson said there’s no way to know how many people have fallen through the cracks in the year that the mobile clinic has been closed. But homeless service providers know that the gap it left was devastating, says Gathering Place CEO Leslie Foster.

“When we lost the van…we were crushed,” she says. “I was at the front of the line, going 'What? Are you kidding? We can’t between all of us figure out how to make this happen? We have to make this happen. We can’t operate without this service.'”

The coalition and its partners like The Gathering Place, Urban Peak and The Delores Project, all programs that provide shelter and other services for the homeless, rallied together to look for private funding to reopen the mobile clinic. The joint fundraising effort was unprecedented, says Foster, considering that all of these organizations typically compete with each other for funding.

After 10 months of searching for a funder, the Anschutz Foundation committed to fund the mobile clinic for a year. Jennifer Wilson, the coalition's director of resource development, said she’s worried about securing more funding for the next year, and that keeping the mobile clinic on the streets is critical.

“Every day I walk through the lobby [of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless] and I see a new individual, a new family who doesn’t have a home, it’s enough to make me look a little bit harder,” she said.

Meanwhile, patients like Kimberly Tatum are able to breathe a little easier knowing that she can once again get inhalers for her asthma. She’s been spreading the word to other homeless women that the mobile clinic is back.

“I know here I’ll get what I need, I don’t have to wait that long and there’s no bill and it makes all the difference in the world,” she said. “These mobile vans – they’re priceless, they really, really are.”



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