You might think that society's most down-and-out have no place to turn for healthcare but the ER. But many major U.S. cities have built healthcare clinics specifically designed to treat the homeless. Cleveland's homeless clinic on St. Clair Ave. offers a full range of services, from to diabetes care to dentures. ideastream's Karen Schaefer prepared this report.
James Hardwick: I was trying to get my life together when I got out of jail when I found out I had diabetes. Didn't have any money, no insurance. I was scared, I was walking the streets, I was homeless.
James Hardwick doesn't look like he's lived a life on the streets. At 57, he's slender and fit with clear eyes and a wide, bright smile. But three years ago, Hardwick was anything but healthy.
James Hardwick: I had almost lost my sight, I couldn't speak, I couldn't keep my balance. And the nurse said I was on the verge of having a stroke.
For nearly 40 years, Hardwick had a drug problem. He drank too much, didn't eat well and almost never saw a doctor. But when he wound up in a homeless shelter with diabetes, the staff referred him to Care Alliance, a Cleveland non-profit health network for low-income people that runs a clinic especially designed to care for the homeless.
James Hardwick: First time I walked in the door I was taken care of like I was a paying patient. And it wasn't until I got involved with Care Alliance, I could see what real people do. You know, people that aren't strung out on drugs.
With help from Care Alliance staff, Hardwick got his diabetes under control. He says being a patient at the homeless clinic also inspired him to kick his drug habit. Today, he's in charge of maintenance there, working full-time, paying his bills and living in his own apartment.
Linda Somers: There's a couple of things we do that you probably wouldn't see in another health center.
Linda Somers is CEO of Care Alliance. She says treating the homeless is different from caring for other populations. One thing that's different here is a smoking room for patients waiting to see the doctor.
Linda Somers:: We want to help them to choose healthier lifestyles, but we accept them where they are, whatever habits they have.
At the homeless clinic patients start lining up outside at 7:00 in the morning. They can wait in a heated vestibule until the doors open at 8. Once inside, they can see a doctor and be treated for multiple problems, something that rarely happens in a hospital emergency room. They can also meet with a social worker, get short-term drug and alcohol counseling, even see the dentist. Dr. Leonard Galicki says the clinic goes far beyond just pulling teeth, the only service most free clinics provide.
Leonard Galicki: We do an awful lot of dentures and partials, replacing missing front teeth. And in the four years since we started these clinics we have letters like this from people who have gotten dentures, gotten out of the shelters, gotten jobs, families take them back - made a real difference.
Cleveland's homeless clinic - one of the first in the country - was built in 1986 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Since then, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has been the primary source of funding. But last year, Linda Somers and her staff applied for a grant to upgrade the old clinic on Payne Ave. This April, they opened a new facility on St. Clair within easy walking distance of the city's two largest homeless shelters. Linda Somers says one of the big advantages of providing healthcare for the homeless in this setting is cost. She says a recent study shows clinic care saves taxpayers about $250 per patient visit.
Linda Somers:: When I multiply that times the number of patients we expect to see - that's 6,500 patients - that means that we're actually saving this community about $1.6 million by providing care at our health center, rather than having these folks in a private setting.
But it isn't the money that matters to James Hardwick. What counts for him is a new life.
James Hardwick: It's been a learning process, it's been a happy process. There's some things I'm learning now at 57 years old, I'm still learning.
For 90.3 News, I'm Karen Schaefer.