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Publication Date: Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Gerry Sarnat: comforting homeless souls Gerry Sarnat: comforting homeless souls (March 06, 2002)

When Gerry Sarnat, fresh out of medical school, turned down a chief resident's position to be an internist at the Alviso clinic in San Jose, his professors thought he was crazy.

He was the first internist from Stanford ever to work at Alviso.

"You sometimes have the biggest impact by taking some of the jobs nobody wants," he said.

That is precisely the philosophy he has tried to live by.

True to form, Sarnat, who is 56, now spends his Wednesday mornings serving free breakfast and dispensing medical advice to the homeless and needy at the Urban Ministry's drop-in center behind the Red Cross in Palo Alto.

The center, which has as many as 400 volunteers, also provides access to unemployment benefits, alcohol recovery programs, job retraining, and some direct medical care. When the medical problem cannot be treated on the site, Sarnat refers patients to free healthcare groups, where they can receive ongoing and preventative medical attention.

He started the Drop-In Center, one of the Urban Ministry's five programs, four years ago when he realized the homeless need basic medical and social services.

"It's very hard on the body to be living outside," he said. People develop skin and foot problems from being exposed to the elements; untreated colds can turn into pneumonia; tuberculosis can easily spread from one at-risk person to the next; and a lot of the homeless live with ongoing problems such as high blood pressure, a bad heart or kidneys, he said.

Being homeless is also hard on the soul, he added. "There's a quote in Homer's 'Odyssey': 'Being homeless and shy is bad'. It takes a lot of energy to survive out there."

After retiring from professional medicine in 1996, Sarnat returned to his roots of community service by volunteering his efforts at the Urban Ministry. It was the best thing he could do for his community and his family, Sarnat figured. A Portola Valley resident, he wanted to live in a community where everybody had access to clothing, food, shelter, basic health care and social services.

"On a personal level, volunteering gives me a lot more in return than I give. It makes me feel like a better person," he said.

The relationships he develops with his patients also have a humanizing effect, he said, that considerably enriches his life. The homeless person he encounters on University Avenue is no longer a faceless, anonymous panhandler.

With the economic downturn, the homeless are not the only ones seeking out the Urban Ministry's services. Demand has increased 40 percent. Elderly living on a fixed income, ex-Stanford students who have drug or mental problems, and former high-tech employees who have recently lost their jobs -- these are just some of the people who pass through the Drop-In Center.

A native of St. Louis, Mo., Sarnat, who enjoys the outdoors, reading fiction and spending time with his family, was brought up in Chicago's inner city, then a lower-middle-class neighborhood. He went to Harvard University where he majored in English, specializing in Milton, and later graduated from the Stanford medical school.

The father of 28-, 23- and 17-year olds, he has learned from his work at the Drop-In Center that no one is immune from homelessness.

"I found out that homelessness could happen to anybody, it could happen to me or my family. Some people have car and rent payments which they can't make. That could be my family. The ex-Stanford students, those could be my children. The elderly who can't afford their rent, that could be me," he said.

Although helping people is its own greatest reward for him, he was lucky enough to benefit from something of a financial windfall later in his career. After being an internist at Alviso, he became the chief medical officer of a then nonprofit health-care provider called TakeCare. Rated by a Gallup poll of patients and physicians as the best health-care organization in the California, its stock became of significant value when it turned for-profit. The company was eventually sold.

"I just happened to be in the right place, at the right time, financially speaking. After 12 years of taking jobs nobody wanted, I had the luck to work for a great organization and to be well taken care of financially," he said.

He then went on to be the chief medical officer and chief executive of Camino Health Care, a conglomeration of El Camino Hospital and about a hundred physicians.

After retiring from his position with Camino Health Care, he joined the Urban Ministry.

In April 2001, Sarnat became president of its board. However, he soon discovered that the organization was in a precarious financial situation. The Urban Ministry had $14,000 in the bank -- enough to pay the staff for two weeks. Since then, it has launched a fund-raising drive that has generated enough money to keep services running for up to a year.

"The community has responded in an extremely generous fashion to the ministry's appeals. A significant portion of the donations came from around 2,000 private individuals and other foundations. Among them, we also received touching $5 contributions in the mail," he said.

Despite the success of the fund raising, Urban Ministry still sought more long-term financial stability. That is why, in December, their board unanimously voted to merge with the San Jose based homeless agency InnVision. That merger became official last week.

"Instead of resting on our laurels, we realized that we had become an attractive partner, so we took advantage of the chance to merge with a larger organization, and to mitigate the possibility of any future financial crisis." He added, "The merger will offer our programs a degree of enhanced economies of scale, because InnVision is a bigger and more stable agency, with a strong business and administrative structure and better access to temporary and emergency housing. As a result, we'll be able to offer more effective mental health, drug recovery and job training services."

To contribute, send donations to the Urban Ministry of Palo Alto, P.O. Box 702, Palo Alto, CA 94302, or for more information call (650) 853-8697.
-- Daniel Moreau

E-mail Daniel Moreau at dmoreau@paweekly.com


 

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