BALTIMORE – Tony Friend can easily recall the date – May 28, 2008. It’s the day he lost everything he owned. It’s the day he became homeless.
Friend, 50, lived on the streets of Baltimore for more than two years, sleeping in shelters, under bridges, at bus stops, and in a tent outside the Port Covington Wal-Mart. He walks with a cane and battles peripheral vascular disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and cocaine addiction.
If not for a Baltimore organization called Health Care for the Homeless, Friend believes he wouldn’t be here to share his story.
“I’d have died out there on the streets,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them, I’d have died.”
Health Care for the Homeless delivers care to approximately 7,000 individuals in Baltimore each year, providing adult and pediatric medical care, mental health services, dental care and addiction treatment. The center also offers access to education, employment and housing.
Since he began treatment at the Baltimore center, Friend has acquired stable housing, learned to maintain a healthy diet–losing more than 50 pounds this year–and become drug free.
“I’ve come a long way in three years,” he said.
But resources are finite and the number of new clients at Health Care for the Homeless is on the rise.
“Lots of people who have never had to seek services here or places that provide services to the poor, are finding themselves now, for the first time, having to do it in this economy,” said Adam Schneider, coordinator of community relations at Health Care for the Homeless.
Established in 1985, the Baltimore center began with only two nurses on staff. They provided what Schneider called “treat and street type medicine.” They bandaged wounds, wrote prescriptions and sent patients back onto the street.
Today, the care is more comprehensive and the services extend far beyond the scope of immediate medical attention.
“We’ve expanded considerably over the past 26 years,” Schneider said.
People begin lining up outside the Health Care for the Homeless building on the Fallsway as early as 5 a.m. each day.
“In the morning at 7, a social worker, and intake worker, and a nurse go out and walk the line and talk to everybody and find out what their needs are,” Schneider said.
Though people must be turned away nearly every day, workers try to ensure that those with urgent needs are seen right away, others are given appointments, and those who cannot be treated are referred to where they can get help.
The organization’s philosophy of care is evident in its approach. Clients often work with a team of care providers, building a relationship based on trust and collaborating to develop the appropriate treatment plan.
“Our clients have a major stake in their treatment, and they have a lot to say about what their needs are,” Schneider said.
Mark Schumann, an advocate and client of Health Care for the Homeless, speaks publicly about his experience with homelessness and also spreads awareness on his blog: homelessnessinbaltimore.com
“When I was a homeless person living on the streets of Baltimore City, the feelings of worthlessness and despair were overwhelming.” Schumann said. “I was living in a world of anger, fear and overpowering depression.”
Before he sought care, Schumann was battling degenerative bone disease, diabetes, asthma and psychiatric illness alone.
“I was dying,” Schumann said. “I was not taking care of my health.”
Schumann, who now has a stable home, said the help he received at the Baltimore non-profit helped turn his life around. He now eats healthier and has reduced the amount of daily medication he requires.
“As of this month, I am no longer on any kind of diabetes medicine,” Schumann said.
There are more than 200 Health Care for the Homeless projects across the country. The other five Maryland centers — two in Montgomery and one each in Hartford, Frederick and Baltimore counties — combine with the one in Baltimore to treat approximately 10,000 people each year.
Despite the many success stories, the number of Marylanders in need is on the rise.
“More and more people are finding themselves with incomes that they can’t live on,” Schneider said. “We need to look at what the real structural problems that cause homelessness are, and we really need to work to address those issues.”
Health Care for the Homeless works to influence policy reform through client advocacy work. Some of the client advocates, like Schumann, have spoken directly to policymakers in Annapolis and on Capitol Hill.
“It’s important to hear how policies affect people firsthand and who better to talk about that than the people who are most directly affected?” Schneider said.