Over the last five years in Wheeling, an organization called Project Homeless Outreach Partnership Effort, or Project HOPE, has been giving medical care to people who live in the city without housing.
This regularly brings Project HOPE director and nurse, Crystal Bauer, to some unusual places, like under a certain highway overpass.
“We’re under a pretty busy bridge that is a major interstate, so there’s a lot of traffic overhead,'' Bauer said. “It provides shelter, obviously, but it’s certainly not without being exposed to the elements. Like I said, the noise overhead, trying to sleep at night, I can’t even imagine.”
Scattered belongings surrounding Bauer and her team under this overpass. The graffitied concrete is a far cry from the usual sterile hospital room where emergency treatment is administered, but the people who set up temporary living in this spot, and many places like it, may be in need of medical attention. So Bauer visits regularly.
Street Rounds in an Appalachian Rust Belt Town
Bauer explained, bringing medical supplies and expertise to makeshift camps where people without access to housing stay is called street rounds.
In Project HOPE’s case, each week these rounds end at a local shelter where a semi permanent doctor’s office has been set up to be able to give more in-depth and sterile examinations to people who can make it there.
Because living in these conditions often results in shortened lifespans, Bauer said street rounds are critical to this population.
“Sadly enough the average lifespan for a homeless male is 58 years old. The average for a homeless female is 47,” Bauer pointed out. “Living outside is very, very hard on the body, especially when you’re someone who is a smoker, or someone battling addiction.”
Giving Hope to a Forgotten Community
A team of volunteers ranges from a group of three to six who go on the weekly rounds. Bauer is always in the group and so is Doctor William Mercer, the medical director of the Ohio County Health Department.
As Dr. Mercer explains, many of the people he encounters on these rounds end up becoming long term patients.
“A lot of these people I do end up taking care of. I find great reward in having them come to my office, I’m their doctor. It’s special to see them grow,” Mercer said.
Along with emergency medical care, Project HOPE also brings along clean socks, water, and food.
While under the bridge, one man arrived and did not look well. He didn’t want to be tended to medically nor did he want to talk to a reporter. Bauer said it’s very common for people to refuse treatment.
“I look at him and I’ve seen this appearance before and the outcome is usually one that’s not good. We have approximately a dozen people that die every year. And it’s hard, you know?”
Finding Strength in Street Medicine
Bauer said Project HOPE provides more than medical attention. She said visiting every week, you get to know people, their history, what makes them human, and you come to care for them.
“It’s hard for us when they die. We grieve their death. We see things in them that sadly because of mental health and addiction and all kinds of other things they just don’t see in themselves,” Bauer said.
But there are success stories, too. Bauer is especially proud of a couple she met earlier this year.
When Bauer first met Karen and David, Karen’s skin was yellow because of advanced liver disease, and she was using a walker. Now, only four months later, she no longer has that walker, and the couple has just moved into their own apartment.
“Project HOPE has been my lifeline. Honest to goodness, if it wasn’t for Crystal, and Dr. Mercer, and all of the other doctors and nurses involved, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” Karen said. “They just opened up their wings and took us under and ever since then everything’s finally lining back up.”
Project HOPE has recently received funding for a mobile exam room, which will provide a more sterile environment for things like vaccinations, or lancing a wound. Bauer hopes to receive funding to take the program county wide, and hopefully make this her fulltime job.
Right now, only one other well-established organization in the state performs street rounds is West Virginia University’s Multidisciplinary UnSheltered Relief Outreach Of Morgantown or Project Mushroom.