(Austin) - It's no secret that the Austin economy is strong, with unemployment rates at-or-near record lows and a booming housing market.
But for some, life is still a daily struggle. Every day in Travis County, an estimated 2,000 people wake up homeless - living on the streets, under highway overpasses, or hidden away in wooded urban areas.
"If there's a wooded area, there's someone living in it," Amber Price, an Austin-Travis County Community Health Paramedic, says. "There's a tunnel that runs under Riverside Drive and you'll find about 35-40 people living under there."
Price is part of a coalition of community partners who come together to help connect the homeless to health care and other important resources. The coalition includes Central Health, the Community Care Collaborative (Central Health's partnership with Seton Healthcare Family), Austin-Travis County Community Health Paramedics, Austin Police Department, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), CommUnityCare Health Centers, Integral Care, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Sunrise Ministries, AIDS Services of Austin, the Central Texas Food Bank and more.
On Thursday, February 1, the coalition hosted a pop-up resource clinic at Central Health Southeast Health & Wellness Center. To get people who are homeless to the clinic, paramedics like Price drove around Austin to campsites and soup kitchens, offering rides - two at a time - to anyone willing to come to the temporary clinic. As people arrived, a paramedic greeted them with a smile, a hot cup of coffee and a pastry, and checked them in so they could access a variety of services. These services included HIV testing, physical examinations, mental health appointment scheduling, substance abuse screenings, enrollment in Central Health's Medical Access Program (MAP), enrollment in veterans' benefits, housing assessments and referrals and more.
"We saw approximately 50 people Thursday, which was fewer than our November pop-up clinic in the parking lot of the Terrazas Public Library in East Austin," says Mike Geeslin, President and CEO of Central Health. "What was different this time was the people we saw were in poorer health. We had doctors at the clinic who provided substantial wound care for two people. I was really pleased that we issued 33 MAP cards, which means newly enrolled members will now have access to primary care, dental care and prescription medications."
Geeslin says some people were admitted on the spot into drug rehab, while others had a physician sign their disability forms so they could access even more services. "These clinics matter [because] we can get people into the system, and they can access regular health care, they're less likely to wind up in the emergency department - which in some cases is just a Band-Aid solution for an individual's health, and it's substantially more expensive. We're not solving homelessness in a day, but hopefully we're making someone's life a little better."
At the Austin Baptist Chapel's Angel House Soup Kitchen on East Cesar Chavez Street, Price picked up a 20-year old homeless man who looked more like a high school student heading to class; only his backpack carried his life's possessions, not school books. Price had just arrived in Austin and had been sleeping on a local college campus. Through a shy grin, the man said, "The beautiful thing about Austin is there are jobs. I walk everywhere, and I always see 'now hiring' signs." With a MAP card and access to health care, he believes things will get better.
If you know someone who needs care, visit CentralHealth.net, or call 512-978-8130.