Mount Carmel expands outreach to homeless amid COVID-19
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a sudden lack of food, shelter, health care and basic human interaction for Columbus’ homeless population.
Mount Carmel Health System’s outreach teams responded by quickly reevaluating how best to meet the needs of their patients.
“We’ve seen people lose their housing because they’ve lost their job. We’ve seen people that were doubling up with a friend ... get kicked out” because of concerns over the coronavirus, said Kristina Kowatsch-Beyer, manager of mobile coach and street medicine for Mount Carmel. “So we had to get creative in how we can help support people.”
The street medicine team, for example, used to take its mobile medical coach to homeless camps, parks, street corners and porches once a week, but as the virus worsened in mid-March, a new plan was created, Kowatsch-Beyer said.
Now, half of the staff makes street rounds in small groups of mental health, physical health and nurse teams five days a week— covering more ground and seeing more patients than ever, she said.
The others use a telehealth model, with a doctor, nurse and caseworker taking calls to prescribe medication and diagnose conditions from a distance. Getting access to working phones can be difficult for homeless patients, so telehealth visits require innovative solutions and collaboration among all of Mount Carmel’s outreach workers, Kowatsch-Beyer said.
These services are especially important as federally qualified health centers, which offer free or low-cost health care to the poor, have closed locations, decreased walk-in availability and limited operating hours, said Keith McCormish, director of the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless.
He said meal programs that once served hundreds of hot meals daily, such as Holy Family Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry and Faith Mission Community Kitchen, have closed.
Eleanor Suber, a 60-year-old Columbus resident who has been homeless for about a year, said, “Everything’s shut down: soup kitchen’s shut down, the shelter where we eat at is shut down, there’s a church, they closed down.”
To help fill the void created by the closing of these meal sites, several nonprofit groups that work with Mount Carmel’s outreach teams, such as Freedom a la Cart, Jordan’s Crossing and the Mid-Ohio Food Collective, offered to donate lunches that can be passed out during street rounds.
Mount Carmel is also using a $15,000 grant funded by United Way and awarded through the city of Columbus to buy tents, bedding and hygiene and cleaning supplies for those who have become homeless or are struggling even more because of the pandemic.
One of the largest challenges the homeless community confronts is the heightened feelings of anxiety, grief and depression caused by COVID-19 concerns and the need to maintain social distance, said Lisa Wahoff, a psychiatric nurse practitioner on the street medicine team.
“The isolation now is even greater, so they really end up having more anger, irritability and fear of the general population and asking for help,” she said.
Wahoff hopes to develop a telecounseling support program, which could help patients break the cycles of negative thoughts that are so easy to spiral into during these challenging times, she said.
“A lot of times, these folks have lost partners, and they’re living alone now on the land,” she said. “It may not have been recent; it may have been a year or two ago, but I think with all the changes and all the disruption in their world, they’re grieving that, and then all this other grief that they never dealt with is coming up.”
Suber said her sister was shot and killed in the woman’s Linden-area home in September 2019.
“I grieve for my sister, because that’s who I lived with, and that’s how I fell homeless after they did her funeral,” Suber said. “The virus, it really changed a lot of people. I see their faces on the street, they’re scared.”
Although these times are difficult, it has been heartening to see the homeless community’s resiliency and generosity withstand the hardships, Kowatsch-Beyer said.
“It’s an amazing phenomenon I’ve never seen before,” she said. “When I was in nursing school, we learned that you have to have those bottom things — shelter, food and so forth — to achieve anything else. But we’ve seen it flipped with the people we work with.”
Mount Carmel’s street medicine team is worried about the impact of winter weather ahead and the possibility of an increase in evictions hitting people who are already struggling, Wahoff said. But the team is confident that it can build its support systems and face any challenges head-on, she said.
“All of us in the community that works with the homeless population will be there for them, and we will hopefully be moving forward with some more programs,” Wahoff said.
People interested in supporting the team’s work may donate to the Mount Carmel Foundation at www.mountcarmelhealth.com/mount-carmel-foundation.