Next Doors: Healing on the Streets
Homelessness is not an ideal situation in any way, but particularly from a health standpoint. The reason shelter is so important to us all is that it protects us from harm. So what happens when you don’t have that shelter, and when you don’t have the resources to get the kind of treatment to counter whatever ailments pop up?
That’s where Street Medicine Phoenix is coming in to help those experiencing homelessness. The Zuckerman College of Public Health coordinates the program, which brings together students and faculty from University of Arizona, Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, Mayo Clinic, Midwestern University and Creighton University.
It’s described as “a student-driven interprofessional healthcare and social justice team” that goes out directly to the streets to provide medical care and support services to individuals experiencing homelessness where they are — in shelters, encampments or on the street.
There are dozens of similar programs across the country, each with its specific focus, whether universities, nonprofits or religious entities drive those. However, in Phoenix, it was started in 2017 by two medical students, Jeffery Hanna and Justin Zein.
Today it is overseen by Catherine Miller, health education & promotion professional and Street Medicine Phoenix program lead, who helps coordinate several hundred volunteer aspiring medical professionals, supervised by doctors from the partner institutions, who are part of the effort.
“There’s a lot of teaching involved,” Miller said. “The medical students are clamoring to get experience, and this is basically their first real clinical experience as medical students, besides some experiences they get in medical school. This is real life, and as far away from a textbook as you could get. The stuff that we see is pretty intense.”
Intense is one way of putting it. Picture providing medical care to a population that not only lacks proper shelter, but lives in the Arizona heat, on streets where even the most minor injury can turn into a major problem. And a population of individuals who often suffer from mental health issues that may prevent them from making clear and rational decisions about their health.
What’s more, Street Medicine Phoenix is facing a problem — the City of Phoenix was ordered by the courts to clear “The Zone,” the large homeless encampment in downtown Phoenix where hundreds of people lived. The presence of The Zone made it easier to host events to provide care to the homeless population, so the program’s leadership has to reevaluate the best ways to reach patients moving forward. The next steps are a work in progress.
But Dr. Robert Fauer, medical director for Street Medicine Phoenix, said that upwards of two-thirds of the medical students in University of Arizona’s programs are doing some sort of volunteer work, which can be an invaluable experience for them professionally.
“Besides the empathy and compassion they learn, they also are getting their most challenging social patients right off the get-go,” he said. “I suspect going forward, when they see patients in the hospital and they’re in their clinical rotations, having this experience is probably very helpful for them to understand the needs of the people they are treating.”
The scope of the program is comprehensive. Along with a gamut of medical services, additional screenings such as mental health, vision and even veterinary screenings for patients with pets are part of the overall effort, with coordination between other social service agencies that can assist with community resources.
Additionally, Fauer said that during the COVID pandemic, Street Medicine Phoenix took an active role in getting the homeless population vaccinated. That effort was redoubled during the mpox outbreak last year.
One of the volunteers is Ashwathy Goutham, part of the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix class of 2026. Goutham said the Street Medicine Phoenix experience has been rewarding both personally and professionally. Goutham is an aspiring emergency room doctor interested in serving a broad spectrum of populations, so Street Medicine Phoenix has been right up her alley.
“It’s made me question my own biases against people and why I have them, and I think volunteering has really been able to break those down for me,” she said. “Also, as a medical student, I think the best way to learn about medicine is to talk to people. I think it’s going to help me become a better doctor.”