The Mercy Health Care for the Homeless (HCH) program began in 1983 in a Springfield, Massachusetts, soup kitchen, operated by the Sisters of Providence. Arriving with basic medical supplies in the back of her station wagon, a Sister of Providence who was also a nurse practitioner, began ministering to the homeless people who frequented the soup kitchen. Obvious abrasions, old wounds and untended coughs were evidence of the lack of basic health care among this population. Not limiting herself to the soup kitchen, Sister quickly extended her ministry to the streets, shelters and even local bars.
In the 1980s the program began to grow with financial support from the Sisters of Providence and the recruitment of additional volunteers. A local foundation awarded a small grant that enabled the program to hire two part-time staff. In 1987, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act was passed, reflecting the federal government's growing concern with the growing number of homeless persons residing in cities throughout the country. Mercy HCH, together with two partners, the Springfield Public Health Department and Open Pantry Community Services, Inc., applied for and in 1988 received one of the first grants awarded through the McKinney program. This support allowed Mercy HCH to hire a team of four providers, serving clients at eight sites in Springfield. In 1988, the team cared for about 800 clients, providing just under 2,000 encounters for a comprehensive array of medical needs.
Today, the 18-member Mercy Homeless Health Care team provides primary care services on-site at 46 shelters, soup kitchens, job placement sites and transitional programs. Services are delivered in three counties: Hampden, Franklin and Hampshire. In 2002, Mercy HCH cared for over 1,800 individuals in our service area. These men, women and children had close to 8,000 encounters with HCH staff. In 2003, HCH cared for 2,350 homeless individuals in 12,000 medical encounters.
The HCH team follows a nursing model of health care, providing assessment, intervention, referrals, follow-up and education. The team consists of seven RNs, three nurse practitioners, a part-time Medical Director, three case managers, an administrative assistant, a part-time physician and psychiatrist and an Executive Director. The team's ability to carry out its health care ministry is greatly extended by a corps of volunteer physicians. These physicians accept referrals directly from HCH nurses and provide medical services in their offices free of charge.
Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, sponsored by the Sisters of Providence, is the cornerstone of the HCH program, providing laboratory, X-ray and inpatient services to clients. HCH nurse practitioners are credentialed and have on-staff privileges at Mercy Medical Center. Mercys emergency room provides back-up during hours when HCH staff are not available; HCH staff are notified of any homeless clients' admission to either the emergency room or the hospital.
To ensure that Mercy's services extend to even the hardest to reach, a new Street Outreach team was added in 1998. Supported by a HUD (Housing and Urban Development) grant, the HCH Street team is a joint effort of three organizations, Mental Health Associates of Greater Springfield (MHA), Alcohol and Drug Services of Western MA (ADS) and Mercy HCH. Working on the streets, at the bus terminal, in cemeteries and under bridges, the team searches for the "hangout" spots of the hardest to reach of the homeless population. The goal is to reach those with mental illnesses, who avoid any contact with the mainstream health and social service system and who may never have received services before.
Since its inception in 1983, the Mercy HCH program has been an ongoing and expanding effort to identify homeless persons in Western Massachusetts, assess their needs and resources, deliver health and social services and evaluate their impact. Services are provided throughout the year on a daily basis with back-up arrangements for 24-hour, emergency coverage.
For more information about the Mercy Health Care for the Homeless program, please call 413-748-9064.