“It will be a place of refuge for the tired, a source of nourishment for the hungry, a place where one can have an HIV test, a wound cared for, a center of refuge and love, a place for a blanket, cups of lemonade, a safe sex kit, coffee in winter,” Hamann said. “It will be a place where those who are often ignored, kicked aside and forgotten will be treated with dignity and respect.”
The Night Ministry has been bringing housing, health care and human connections to underserved Chicago neighborhoods since 1976. According to its latest annual street outreach report, more than 1 in 5 visitors to the bus seek its services at least five times a month. Another 47 percent may have eaten earlier in the day but the food they receive from a volunteer on the bus makes a difference to them, Hamann said.
“We know visitors to the bus are often lonely,” he said. “More than 50 percent reported they lack friendship or companionship; 80 percent say the friendships they develop with volunteers and staff are meaningful and 90 percent say ‘I am accepted where I am.’ ”
Last year, the Health Outreach Bus provided services to individuals more than 55,000 times, including free medical care to 1,200 individuals. A nurse provides blood pressure and blood sugar checks, pregnancy tests, care for cuts, scrapes, rashes, sore throats and sore feet, referrals to medical and dental care. There was also free, confidential testing for HIV to 588 individuals along with screening for Hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The 38-foot Health Outreach Bus is a customized vehicle with a hospitality area, electronic medical records, pass-through door from restroom to exam room for specimens, a roomier exam room and taller cupboards to store larger items such as brooms and cleaning supplies. It is also lighter weight so that staff members do not need commercial driver’s licenses.
The bus replaces a nine-year-old model that was driven 90,000 miles. It will become the backup bus. The old backup bus is 18 years old and unreliable for intensive service, but will be given to another church, where it will provide intermittent transportation for members, officials said.
The new Health Outreach Bus is the centerpiece of a campaign to also raise $458,000 to expand street outreach that had been reduced during the recession. Officials at The Night Ministry anticipated an 18-month campaign but instead raised $892,000 in six months through this September.
Besides its own board of directors, the largest single group of donors was Impact 100 Chicago. The all-women’s organization gathers $1,000 each from at least 100 women annually and contributed $100,000.
As a result of the expanded health outreach, The Night Ministry has added Sunday service to Humboldt Park and Pilsen. It has also expanded service in Uptown, Back of the Yards, South Shore and Wicker Park so that each neighborhood has one 90-minute stop per week. Next March, they will begin to offer daytime health outreach to shelters and food pantries in partnership with them.Immediately after the blessing, the bus traveled to South Shore, where it visited with 70 people and distributed 60 sandwiches. The stop was switched from later in the evening because the street outreach survey showed that neighborhood residents particularly valued the supplemental food. In addition, two people received health care and two took quick-result HIV tests.
The bus is important, said Willie Reymond, because a lot of homeless people do not have a place to stay. “Some don’t have relatives and when they’re hungry, the bus feeds them.”
James Freeman, 52, said he comes to the bus for the conversation, “something to do other than being on the street all the time.” Freeman is homeless although he helps rehab homes and put up drywall. He said he needs to get his birth certificate in order to get a Social Security card or state ID before he can get a job. He goes to see The Night Ministry nurse because he never signed up for the health insurance under the Affordable Care Act; he didn’t have an address.
“A lot of people have not signed up yet,” said Barbara Sexton, a nurse on the Health Outreach Bus for 22 years. “A lot of people are confused and don’t really understand it. I will say, ‘have you signed up?’ and they will say, ‘Oh, no, they are trying to send me somewhere.’ These are people who are not planning on a daily basis. They are in survival mode.”
In the meantime, Sexton said, the Health Outreach Bus provides episodic care – earaches, sore throat, asthma attacks – and help in managing conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes. “We want to keep people out of the emergency room and get them into primary care.”
According to The Night Ministry street outreach survey, 31.25 percent of respondents did not have a regular place to go for health care. The number at South Shore was 46.55 percent, the highest of any neighborhood. Across all locations, 46.69 percent had visited with the nurse on the Health Outreach Bus.
The largest number of respondents in the overall street outreach survey, 31.84 percent, said they were living in an apartment; 10.11 percent were in a house. However, unstably housed people included 18.35 percent on the street, 8.99 percent in a shelter and 15.73 percent staying rent-free with friends or relatives.
People without a stable address can lose Medicaid coverage if they miss follow-up mail, said Graham Bowman, Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The alternative is a long wait at a clinic.
“Especially for people experiencing homelessness, the bus is so important because it is a reliable source of health care that serves them where they are,” said Bowman. “It is a model for what health care delivery should look like for people who live on the street. It’s difficult to make an appointment if you don’t have an address or don’t have a phone. The bus cuts through all of that.”
By Suzanne Hanney, StreetWise Editor-in-Chief