Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - October 28, 2011

Licensed healthcare clinic grows at homeless shelter

by Carol Garsten

Six years ago when I first heard of the new homeless center I was skeptical of the kind of people it would attract and how they would affect my livelihood, my retail business at Town & Country Village.

Now I find myself at the end of my fourth year on the board of directors and second year as board chair of Peninsula HealthCare Connection and in the second year as director of the Downtown Streets Team Mentor Program, which connects community volunteers with people emerging from homelessness.

My interest in homeless issues began when a good friend of mine became homeless and I couldn't help him, and grew when Dr. Lars Osterberg and Dr. Don Barr visited Palo Alto University Rotary Club to tell us about the new health care clinic that they started.

What stuck in my head that day was something that Dr. Barr told us. He said that when members of the local homeless community were asked what they were most afraid of, it was not that they didn't have food or a place to live but the way that people looked down on them.

I thought to myself that day, understanding that I cannot end homelessness, but I can start today to treat these people with dignity, acknowledge the unhoused people in our community with a smile, a nod of the head or a friendly greeting.

Peninsula HealthCare Connection was proud to announce on Aug. 22 that its 250-square-foot-clinic became a free licensed community clinic. Located inside the Opportunity Center, the clinic was not designed or built to meet the stringent California State Licensing requirements. The process of becoming licensed took three years and was no small feat. It involved such things as removing two bathrooms, developing Disaster Preparedness and Pandemic Flu Plans and re-routing the air ducting. Though many in the community thought that we would never be awarded a state license, the clinic board did not see licensing as an option.

The truth is that no matter what great work we were doing, if we weren't licensed we couldn't bill Medicare or Medicaid, we couldn't go to the local hospitals for partnerships and funding and we just wouldn't be taken seriously.

The Palo Alto Medical Foundation has been a tremendous supporter of the clinic since its inception. It has not only written checks to support our work but has underwritten the cost of our amazing dedicated medical staff. Dr. Patty McGann works half time as the clinic's managing medical director and primary care physician, Dr. Bahzra provides primary care and Dr. Ruth Rothman., dermatology.

The clinic, which provides primary and mental health care, has quadrupled the amount of patient visits in the last two years. In 2009 the clinic conducted 1,000 patient visits and now has 4,000 visits per year. Services have expanded to include intensive case management, helping over 20 local homeless people move to permanent housing last year, high blood pressure and diabetes classes. All of these services are now being provided even as the clinic has tightened its belt and decreased its budget. Eileen Richardson, the executive director, has lead the clinic from a place of barely surviving to a place where our focus is on how we can expand the clinic into a bigger space to help even more people.

Finding a solution to homelessness is challenging, particularly in these rough economic times. The Opportunity Center has five independent nonprofits work in a cooperative way to help our local un-housed population. They include Community Working Group, InnVision, Downtown Streets Team, Palo Alto Housing Corporation and Peninsula HealthCare Connection.

At the clinic, we feel that good physical and mental health is one of the cogs in the wheel to ending homelessness right here in our community. Our small clinic makes a huge difference in so many people's lives.

For more information on becoming a part of the solution to homelessness please visit Peninsula HealthCare Connection's website www.peninsulahcc.org. For more information about the Downtown Streets Team Mentor Program email: dstmentorprogram@yahoo.com.

Carol Garsten is board chair of Peninsula HealthCare Connections and owns Nature Gallery in Town and Country Village.

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