Student Determination Blossoms Into Communitywide Support for Homeless

When the COVID-19 pandemic halted a volunteer program, students found a way to continue — and expand — health care efforts in the community
A man wearing a surgical mask with bags and boxes of supplies

In early March, Rush University halted its student volunteer program at the Franciscan House of Mary and Joseph homeless shelter to ensure the safety of its students. Despite the danger and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, students remained determined to continue serving the community.  

The Franciscan initiative is part of the Rush Community Service Initiatives Program (RCSIP), a volunteer program dedicated to providing services to more than 10,000 members of the West Side communities near Rush University Medical Center. Students worried that the shelter would lack critical support if they were not allowed to participate.

“As a team, we were very concerned about the health inequalities of the homeless population in this shelter, as our team were normally the ones to provide their medications and address their medical concerns," says Stephanie Moss, a Rush Medical College student volunteer. “This virus had the grave potential to exacerbate their complex medical needs and put them at a higher risk of contracting the disease."

Sharon Gates, DSW, MA, senior director of student diversity and community engagement, brought these concerns to the leaders of the Franciscan RCSIP project.

“I said, 'Here's the deal: We can't stop the show,'" Gates says. “The students don't want to stop the show." After consideration, the faculty leaders decided that they would take on the role of patient-facing care; later, students were granted approval to assist on the back end.

The students' determination eventually fostered a community-wide effort to support the homeless population in Chicago.

A growing coalition

Three health systems (Rush University System for Health, Cook County Health and UI Health), the Lawndale Christian Health Center, Heartland Alliance, and numerous homeless and communal shelters on the West Side soon joined Rush faculty and students to expand their efforts. The coalition became known as the Chicago Homelessness and Health Response Group for Equity (CHHRGE).

The coalition grew to include community partners and organizations such as the Salvation Army and the Haymarket Center, which provides aid to recovering individuals with substance use disorders, who supported the initiative by opening more sites to increase social distancing and continue patient care. But it was the student volunteers who played a vital role in contributing support on the ground.

They made daily visits to sites without COVID-19 cases to ensure people stayed healthy, aided Rush faculty members with COVID-19 screenings and referred people for testing for COVID-19. On April 3, they helped organize the distribution of 25,000 articles of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies including gloves, masks and sanitizing wipes.

Perhaps most importantly, students coordinated transportation of vital resources to those who could not pick them up from a shelter. They traveled around the Chicago area, even during the spring unrest, to deliver necessary supplies.

“Many of the surrounding pharmacies were just decimated. So students took gift cards, cash, you name it, to the suburbs, and they picked up medication, and they brought it back to the people," Gates says.

Megan Cunningham, managing deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Health, summarized the impact of Rush's work when she stated that had it not been for this large effort, Rush and its partners would not have made so much progress in protecting the unsheltered.

CHHRGE is continuing its work through the fall by performing services such as assembling care packages for the homeless community, administering flu vaccinations at shelters and distributing face masks to prevent outbreaks within shelters.

The power of community connections

The success of Rush University's initiatives does not rest solely on the extent of its impact but also on the relationships it builds with community members.

When a Rush academic building that Gates used to house PPE converted into a COVID-19 testing site, student access to the building was revoked. When Gates mentioned the problem to a group of senior women living in Oakley Square, a housing development where Rush operates a clinic, the women were eager to help.

They offered their exercise room as a storage facility and allowed students to retrieve supplies whenever necessary. Why? The women appreciate the students' efforts and the time they take to get to know the community.

Pre-pandemic, these women and other community members socialized with students by participating in a book club. They read the same books Rush students read for class, such as The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Afterward, discussions were held, and community members provided their views on the information learned. They helped students broaden their understanding of working with patients from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives.

Gates recounted a story a student told her in which a former patient from Franciscan House saw the student on the street and told the student how he had taken his medical advice and his health had improved. The student was thrilled to see the man, since they were worried about his health and if he was taking care of himself.

It is exactly this type of care and relationship that really sets Rush students apart, Gates observes.

“To be identified on the street, by a homeless person that you've been thinking about and concerned about, that speaks volumes about the kind of relationships that are fostered, and how the individuals living in the spaces where our students serve value the respect our students bring," Gates says. “That they treat them no differently than they would their brother, their father, their mother."

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