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Program Aims to Bring Stability to Homeless Patients in San Diego

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It's tough to get medical care when you're homeless. That's why many homeless people go to emergency rooms, where by law they can't be turned away. A unique program run by Scripps Mercy Hospital and C

Program Aims to Bring Stability to Homeless Patients in San Diego

(Photo: Formerly homeless, Michael Weiss has cleaned up his act thanks to a San Diego program. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS )

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It's tough to get medical care when you're homeless. That's why many homeless people go to emergency rooms, where by law they can't be turned away. A unique program run by Scripps Mercy Hospital and Catholic Charities helps homeless patients get off the street, and back on track. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

It's midday in the emergency room at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest.                                   

All of the ER's 25 beds are full.

Dr. Valerie Norton is the department's medical director. She a lot of homeless are frequent customers.

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<b> Dr. Valerie Norton: </b> We all have an idea of certain homeless people we see over and over again, and what they're in for. And often we have a little write-up on them, and a notebook where we know what problems they have, and what they're generally going to need for us to do for them. It's sad.

Dr. Norton says there are two main chronic conditions that affect the homeless.

<b> Dr. Norton: </b> Well, of course we see a lot of substance abuse issues, we see a lot of mental illness. But we also see people with diabetes, who haven't had their medications and their blood sugar's out of control, and the whole range of chronic medical problems, and also a lot of acute injuries.

Norton and her staff do what they can to help homeless patients. They'll even admit them to the hospital if their conditions are serious enough.

But once the patients are discharged, they'll likely come back to the ER over and over again.

Scripps is trying to break that cycle. With the help of Catholic Charities, Scripps Mercy is bringing some stability to patients who normally would be living on the streets.

<b> Charlie Mador and Oscar: </b> Hi Oscar, I'm Charlie from social work. I understand you've been homeless for a while.

Scripps Mercy social worker Charlie Mador checks in with a patient that's about to be released.

Oscar says he was doing all right until his wife died. They he started drinking heavily, and ended up homeless.

Mador wants to find out if Oscar is a candidate for Scripps' special program.

<b> Mador: </b> If they're just looking for a roof over their head and a meal and they don't care to change their behaviors, then we don't refer to the program. We're really looking to refer to help promote change.

<b> Sister RayMonda DuVall:&nbsp; </b> Hospital stays tend to scare people. So if they're going to make any changes, this is an opportune time to do it.

Sister RayMonda DuVall is executive director of Catholic Charities. She says homeless people who are hospitalized often realize they need to do something different.

<b> DuVall:&nbsp; </b> I think it's the vulnerability, and recognizing that there is a mortality, and that they need other people to help them wade through whatever might be ahead of them.

Scripps Mercy identifies the homeless patients who are ready to change.

Then, Catholic Charities offers housing assistance, referrals to drug and alcohol rehab, and help getting to medical appointments. Catholic Charities also provides case managers who help clients stay on track.

Michael Weiss is one of 73 people who've enrolled in the program in its first year.

Weiss says if he hadn't gotten involved, he'd be living on the street.

<b> Michael Weiss: </b>  With a bottle, of course, I'd be with a 40-ounce, probably right now. I wouldn't be dressed the way I am, I know that. My socks would be dirty, I wouldn't have any place to wash, I'd be carrying around a bag. I'd be looking for a place to sleep every night. 

Instead, Weiss has a place to live, a job, and he's going to school, too. He's been sober for seven months. And that's not all.

<b> Weiss: </b> I recently just got back with my parents. I wrote 'em a letter a couple of months ago, and they've wrote me back and say all is forgiven and just come back, we want to see you again. It's been 16 years, I can't believe, it's just been a miracle, as far as gettin' my family back.

The collaborative project has about a 65 percent success rate. That's considered quite high among recovery programs.

Sister RayMonda Duvall says the effort is a perfect fit for Catholic Charities. But she says the calling to care for the homeless crosses over to all religions.

<b> DuVall:&nbsp; </b> Every tradition has a mandate that we care for one another. And so it may not reflect on their community, but it reflects on their humanity. So we're called as people to care for one another. And that's how we'll be judged.

Scripps has decided to fund the program for another year. Hospital officials say it's helping them save money by reducing the number of homeless people using the ER.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.