For homeless Vermonters, getting quality health care is a big challenge. Close to 1,000 people come through the doors of the Safe Harbor Health Center in Burlington each year for medical treatment, dental care and counseling services. Plus, they can work on finding housing.
Safe Harbor is the only federally-funded health center in Vermont that serves the state’s homeless population. The clinic supplies a lot of what people may need when they walk out the door — everything from wound treatment to dry socks, says social worker Erin Ahearn. “Whereas you and I would stop at a drugstore on our way home, folks don’t, so we’re really sensitive to that,” Ahearn said.
With only two exam rooms, staff has to “juggle folks around" on busier days, Ahearn said.
“A lot going on in a really small space, but it really runs like a typical primary care office,” Ahearn said. “I think that’s what we really strive to do as people come in and they feel like they’re anybody, in any circumstance, coming in to a doctor.”
As a clinical social worker, Ahearn does therapy, substance abuse, diagnosis work, case management and evaluations. She and the other clinical social worker on staff work with the medical team to come up with a comprehensive plan for patients, she said.
“It goes from the basic needs of sleeping, eating, kitchen and plumbing to ‘I had surgery’, or ‘I have chemotherapy, and I need to go home and rest after,’” she said. “We’ve had brain tumors, we have had open-heart surgery and people who go back to shelters and to motels, and that’s not okay.”
Often when the center puts someone in housing, those patients are able to follow through with things they would not be able to do without a place to stay, she said.
“How can you be healthy without a home? They go hand in hand,” Ahearn said.
Stefanie Comstock and Katelyn Hanson are outreach case workers at Safe Harbor. They are out in the community quite a bit: at local food sites, on Church Street, at exit ramps off the highway or up at campsites.
“Our role at Safe Harbor is to connect with the homeless community wherever they are,” Hanson said. “So that means physically, but also whenever the needs of the person happen to be.”
“A lot of people are scared to come to a medical facility,” Comstock said. “When we go to campsites or out in the community, we have backpacks of stuff with us … We bring hand warmers, foot warmers, socks, hygiene supplies or sun block, depending on the season.”
Safe Harbor even sends providers and a nurse to a food shelf every Thursday to offer care to those more comfortable with the shelf’s familiar environment. There, community members can potentially have an office visit, or get a dressing change or simply get some Tylenol for a headache.
“Sometimes it’s a process, like ‘Hey, do you need a dry pair of socks? Okay, it was nice chatting with you,’” Ahearn said. “You keep trying to engage with them — try to give them some items that they need, and then over time start to build a relationship, and they can start to trust you.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported a 25 percent increase in the number of homeless Vermonters from 2012 to 2013, from 1,160 to 1,454. Despite this increase, Hanson said that people in Burlington are not always aware that homelessness is an issue in their community.
“Our community maybe isn’t at the point of recognizing homelessness as a real issue in Burlington,” Hanson said. “It’s something that we’re addressing every day.”
Hanson said that the homeless patients the clinic sees are often community members who have lived in Burlington for their whole lives.
“It is a community issue, and as Vermonters, we are people who pride ourselves on community,” she said. “There have been a lot of issues this summer with people camping, year-round camping, people being asked to vacate areas for no trespassing, and just how prevalent the population actually is.”