One of the most persistent problems often plaguing our healthcare system isn’t getting the correct diagnosis, treatment plan or medication. Many times the right prescription is simply getting a roof over the patient’s head.
If only it were that simple. Homelessness, a leading cause of costly overuse of the medical system and unnecessarily bad outcomes for patients, is difficult to fix when there aren’t that many places for low- to zero-income patients to live. Especially after the latest hurricane.
So what to do if you’re a hospital system that’s trying to get at the root cause of sickness and disease? You go to the community and find partners for a creative solution.
The Hope Recuperative Care House in Wilmington is one of those solutions. The five-bed project, spread over two houses, gives temporary shelter for patients who are well enough to be discharged from New Hanover Regional Medical Center but too sick to return to a tent in the woods, a tarp on a park bench or a house without running water or electricity.
The patients have up to a month of nurturing and mentoring while all their daily needs are met, giving social workers and counselors at HRC time to help them find housing and link them to other community programs to meet their needs.
Hospitals are not wired to run short-term homeless programs. But who is?
That’s where the partners come in. Two churches in this community, The Anchor United Methodist Church and Winter Park Baptist Church, have partnered to start this program. Winter Park graciously donated properties it owns to the project, and The Anchor United Methodist, a downtown church that meets on a barge and robustly minsters to our community’s homeless, operates the program.
The Anchor United Methodist in particular assumed an active interest in taking a lead role in filling the gap for those more or less “stuck” in hospital beds with no place to go, pushing for this partnership and persevering past the necessary regulatory hurdles. As for NHRMC, which routinely has multiple patients awaiting beds, having a solution for homeless patients who stay a month, six months or longer in an inpatient bed for lack of a safe discharge plan is invaluable.
The program’s success can be measured by bed days created at NHRMC, by future readmissions saved, or by clients who were able to find permanent housing. Or you can measure it by the stories of the clients it serves. Meg McBride, the HRC’s Operations Director who writes her own blog about the home’s journey, says the ministry reminds her of a familiar biblical parable.
“In our … volunteer orientation, we tell the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10,” she writes. “We are all familiar with the story -- the Priest and the Levite pass by the wounded man in the ditch, but the Good Samaritan stops -- he sees the man, feels compassion for him and tends to his needs by bandaging his wounds and putting him up in shelter.
“This story is a great model for our work at HRC. At HRC we care for our city's most vulnerable persons, who while living on the streets, have incurred medical problems that require hospitalization. Following their hospital stay, they are able to come to HRC and rest and recuperate in a home-like environment for up to a month. Their needs are cared for: we share meals together, drive guests to follow up appointments, forge friendships, pray together and partner with community organizations that offer services to help break cycles of homelessness that hopefully lead to permanent housing. At HRC, we feel we are caring for the man left for dead in the ditch.”
The very first of those the team cared for was a grown man with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He lived in another part of the state in his parents’ home, but they both died. Before long, he has lost his home and had no money.
He did what his father had always taught him to do when in trouble: He went to the beach. Hopeless, he drove to Wrightsville Beach to kill himself.
He couldn’t do it. Instead he wound up hospitalized, with no prospect of discharge as he is incapable of living alone. When the Hope Recuperative Care House opened, he joined the program within two days after 2½ months in the hospital.
And he thrived. The daily routine, the devotionals and the camaraderie with subsequent house guests made all the difference. He pursued his passion of art and became proficient at drawing. And the HRC staff, who also work as disability specialists for a program that serves the homeless, are pursuing disability status and permanent housing.
Another man living on a park bench is receiving cancer treatments and able to stay at HRC. Then there’s a man who was walking home from work and hit by a car, breaking both his ankles. He recently cheerfully announced that as soon as he is able to return to the community, he will “run and not walk” back to HRC to volunteer.
The relationship between guests, staff and volunteers has continued to grow and amaze those who lead this effort, who, as often occurs in community service, are finding they get more out of it than they give. In her blog, Meg recalls one incident that brought this home:
“Later that afternoon, our staff sat and talked with another guest who had bent the rules a few times and was chronically interruptive at times … After we cleared the air and I was getting ready to get in my car to go home, the guest called my name and asked to speak to me. My immediate internal reaction was, "What now?!" … He thanked me and another staff member standing with me for taking him in and then.... he started to cry. As he confessed that he had never found himself homeless ever before in his life, he was thankful HRC was there for him. He hugged us both tightly. In his sincerity, I discovered my own homecoming in God's grace.”
So far, the community is responding to this project. Churches, businesses and individuals are donating food, as is the Food Bank of Eastern North Carolina. Food has yet to be a problem. Hot meals, renovations and other household supplies are also donated, and the NHRMC Foundation contributed $25,000 to assist with renovations, a bold new step for the Foundation in reaching out directly to the public. All these efforts are supplying the answer to the question of what a shared community project can look like. Though HRC hasn’t publicly sought assistance, they have a gracious plenty for now.
This response will need to continue. HRC will eventually expand, as there sadly is more need for this type of housing. This initial momentum will have to be sustained. Because the community needs a humane and kind place for these clients to recover long enough to find a more permanent solution.
You can give a patient all the procedures and medicines on the market, but until the patient has a bed to call his or her own, they’re not going to get much better. Two churches that know this all too well are partnering with New Hanover Regional Medical Center to address a part of that issue. There’s so much more that needs to be done, but because of this effort, the community is just a little bit closer to the “outstanding health” we proudly list as our mission.
To donate to Hope Recuperative Care House, click here. Volunteer opportunities include providing meals, offering to stay to assist staff and gardening. Email Meg.McBride@nhrmc.org for more information.