Date October 15, 2022
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Student-organized health fair offers care, community resources for Rhode Islanders facing homelessness

Created to meet the unique needs of homeless residents in Rhode Island, the annual Burnside Park Health Fair bridges gaps between health and social services for residents of the city’s most vulnerable populations.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — More than 70 Brown undergraduate, graduate and medical students spent the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 15, at Burnside Park in Providence, offering medical care, food and community resources to some of the city’s most vulnerable populations, including homeless, unemployed and undocumented residents.

Organized by Warren Alpert Medical School students in partnership with House of Hope since 2016, the Burnside Park Health Fair is held each fall to support people facing homelessness with essential health and hygiene services. Volunteers also connect participants with resources focused on housing assistance, legal support, social security benefits and transportation, among other areas.

On Saturday, hundreds of residents visited stations staffed by community organizations and student volunteers. Blood pressure and glucose monitoring, HIV and Hepatitis C testing, flu vaccines, a foot clinic to address infections and pain, and information on how to administer naloxone to reverse an opioid overdose were among the offerings. The health fair is designed to meet the unique needs of individuals without secure housing.

Laura Jaworski, executive director of House of Hope — a community development corporation focused on addressing chronic homelessness in Rhode Island — said locating the health fair in Burnside Park ensures that services are visible and easily accessible for people who often lack transportation, time or trust in seeking care.

“People are more likely to go to a health fair, because it’s a low barrier,” Jaworski said. “I can walk right up. I don’t have to make an appointment. I don’t have to wait. I don’t have to go into a building that might be filled with strange noises, smells or locked doors, all of which can be triggering and retraumatizing for people. I come as I am, and I get my need hopefully met right then and there.”

House of Hope’s traveling shower unit is among the most accessed services at the health fair each year. The Shower to Empower program provides complimentary showers and haircuts and is staffed by a registered nurse to offer on-site case management and medical services. Each week, the mobile unit travels throughout Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket and West Warwick. This summer, the program marked more than 5,000 showers and 1,200 haircuts to homeless residents in Rhode Island.

The Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless reports that roughly 1,100 Rhode Islanders are currently experiencing homelessness, and 300 live outdoors. For the unhoused, waiting times for emergency shelter beds or transitional housing can take months. Shared housing, malnutrition and weather exposure, compounded by a lack of access to regular preventive care or medications, put homeless individuals at risk for higher rates of illness and chronic conditions, including diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

To encourage health fair participants to establish a health care provider relationship, many student volunteers help individuals complete health history forms that they can take to future appointments. Representatives from the Rhode Island Free Clinic, Clínica Esperanza and the Providence Community Health Centers attend the fair each year to make in-person connections and schedule follow-up care appointments.

“The key to the fair’s success is having all of these organizations nearby, so our participants can walk a few steps after completing their health history form to make an appointment,” said Makena Mette, a second-year medical student at Brown. “By featuring the free clinics, we hope to make them more accessible so that participants today can see them and realize that they’re an institution worthy of their time and trust and that they can go and get quality care.”

For Mette and other Brown medical students, patient advocacy and care delivery to historically and chronically underserved communities is a central part of what it means to be a health care provider. Clínica Esperanza and the Rhode Island Free Clinic attract between 75 and 100 medical students each year, and providing care at the clinics and organizing events like the Burnside Park Health Fair offer students an important opportunity to work in support of local community members.

“In all med schools, but specifically at Brown, we’re trained to get to know the patient and not just the diagnosis,” Mette said. “Hopefully, the medical system is changing to be more empathetic towards the plight of people who are unhoused because I think a lot of times, they aren’t receiving the care they should be getting because of all the biases that come with experiencing homelessness.”

In recent years, homelessness in Rhode Island has grown, and Jaworski credits community partners like those from Brown and its medical school for additional critical support.

“The work we’re faced with right now is simply overwhelming,” she said. “The demand for services far outweighs supply. The more folks that we can have working with us, the better. The medical practitioners and students at Brown are some of the unsung heroes we depend on. We’re grateful that there’s a real opportunity for partnership to do this work together."