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Foss: Helping the homeless get health care, treatment

Foss: Helping the homeless get health care, treatment

Bethesda House in Schenectady plays important role
Foss: Helping the homeless get health care, treatment
Some of Schenectady's homeless took advantage of Bethesda House on Thursday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

When Amir arrived at Bethesda House, he was looking for a place to sleep. 

And he found it — a cot, blankets and pillow. 

He also found hot showers, a washer and dryer, a warm place to hang out during the day and a man named Kevin.  

"I met Kevin this morning," Amir, 18, tells me, as he's settling in for the night at the emergency shelter run by Bethesda House. "He's helping me set up my housing and get mental health counseling." 

Kevin is Kevin McCormick, a social worker at Bethesda House, a Schenectady non-profit organization that serves the poor. 

When Amir and the other men and women who stay at the emergency shelter get up in the morning, McCormick is there to greet them, inquire as to their needs and see what he and his colleagues at Bethesda House might be able to do to help them. 

"They wake up at 6 a.m.," McCormick says, as we watch Amir and others pack up their cots and get ready for the day. "I try to make connections." 

This is the third year Bethesda House has operated a Code Blue shelter — a shelter that provides homeless people with a warm place to sleep in cold weather. 

When the shelter opened, it was viewed primarily as a way to get people off the streets and out of abandoned buildings on nights when cold temperatures can be life-threatening. 

But it wasn't long before the shelter's mission began to expand. 

Bethesda House staff noticed that there were a lot of new faces at the Code Blue shelter, which meant that the shelter provided an avenue for connecting with people who had never before sought assistance from the organization. Many of these people were suffering from addiction, mental illnesses and other medical problems, and the staff began working to get them care and treatment. 

"So many people had complex medical needs — diabetes, hypertension," McCormick recalled. "And they were not connected to a medical provider.

McCormick does what he can to connect with the men and women who stay at the shelter during the brief window between when they wake up and when they leave. He makes an effort to speak with everyone, but time is limited. 

Much to his delight, connecting with shelter residents will soon become easier, thanks to a $232,310 grant from the Albany-based Alliance for Better Health. 

This money will enable the organization to hire additional case managers and social workers to staff the emergency shelter. Perhaps most significantly, the shelter will become a year-round operation, open during the warmer months as well. 

"We want to make sure the people who stay here are clothed and fed, but their health is also important to us," said Leina Manakawa, a social worker at Bethesda House. "We care about them." 

That concern is apparent to visitors such as myself and it's appreciated by Amir and others who stay at the shelter. 

"I've been here a couple of nights," a 61-year-old man named James tells me. "A guy named Kevin is getting me connected to Ellis Mental Health. ... They have a good staff here." 

Meeting the health needs of the homeless and poor isn't easy. 

Their struggles can make keeping appointments and maintaining schedules a challenge, and they often lack health insurance, although most of them qualify for Medicaid and other programs. 

"No appointment necessary is really the key with this population," said Kimarie Sheppard, executive director of Bethesda House. 

Sheppard, McCormick and Minakawa believe that the best way to meet the health needs of the homeless and poor is to deliver it to them, and I'm inclined to think they're right. Eventually, Bethesda House hopes to host a small on-site medical clinic, where doctors can meet with those who stay at the shelter. 

"I see a lot of people with mental illness and substance abuse," McCormick said. "We need more community-based treatment. " 

Bethesda House runs a daytime drop-in center where people can get food, do simple chores such as laundry and hang out in a safe, warm environment. In the evenings, the drop-in center is transformed into an emergency shelter. When I visited the shelter last week, it was at capacity, with 14 guests. 

When McCormick greets Amir in the morning, he wants to know how he'll be spending the day. Amir says he's going to Saratoga Springs to fill out job applications. "But will you be back later?" McCormick asks, and Amir assures him he will. 

Moments later, McCormick is chatting with another guest, a man who is new to the shelter. When he asks him what he needs, the man replies, "I don't know what to say. I just have to find a place." 

"With more staff we'll be able to take people back to the office and do more extensive interviewing," McCormick tells me. "But a little is better than nothing." 

McCormick's right: A little is better than nothing. 

The good news is that soon Bethesda House will be able to provide more than a little — quite a bit more. 

This will benefit our neediest residents, who often fall through the cracks. Too many people suffer from untreated health ailments, and the organization's effort to reduce their number should be applauded. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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