Who Is My Neighbor? Responding to Homelessness

by Connie Brehm

“Who is my neighbor?” the young man asked Jesus. In response, He described a man attacked by robbers and left to die on the road to Jericho, ignored in his plight by a priest and a Levite. Only one man, a Samaritan, bandaged his wounds, brought him to shelter, and paid for his care. Jesus challenged the crowd, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the victim?” The answer was clear: “The one who had mercy on him.” (Paraphrased from Luke 10:29–37)

Homelessness plagues more than half a million people every night in the United States (610,042 on a single night in January 2013, according to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress). Given the magnitude of the problem, it is hard to believe that homelessness rarely occurred in the U.S. during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. During those eras, federal and state programs such as subsidized housing and care for the mentally ill were significantly more available, and unskilled jobs paying a decent wage were more plentiful. However, in the early 1980s, lawmakers initiated deep cuts to poverty programs that triggered a sudden and rapid rise in homelessness. Today, the scarcity of affordable housing, the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, and fragmented care for the mentally ill perpetuate homelessness. Essentially, holes abound in the “safety net” designed to catch people before they land in the streets. Perhaps most troubling is the increasing numbers of homeless families, which bring a host of additional challenges including disruption of children’s normal growth and development and adverse outcomes in school. The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that children who grow up in homeless families often repeat the cycle with ­­­their own children.

The problem calls for robust action from federal and state lawmakers, the voting public, the business community, churches, and local governments—specifically, policies that foster affordable housing, education and job skills, more jobs that pay a living wage, and better access to physical and mental health care. While it may be impossible to house every person in the country, we can certainly envision returning to a time when homelessness was a rare occurrence.

Working toward that goal, the APU School of Nursing’s Homeless Health Care Outreach, a community-based initiative serving the San Gabriel Valley, provides a place for neighbors without homes to find care and compassion. I founded the program in 1997 as an exploration of new clinical sites for graduate nursing students, but it quickly grew. As of 2014, we have treated more than 3,000 clients. Each academic year, approximately 80 undergraduate and graduate nursing students work with nursing faculty and local programs like the Winter Shelter Program of East San Gabriel Valley Coalition for the Homeless (ESGVCH) that operates within donated church space at several locations. ESGVCH serves approximately 160 adults nightly, and 1,100 patients during the 12-week winter season. APU students and faculty nurses provide care for 25–30 clients at the shelter during each weekly clinic session. More than 40 undergraduate and 50 graduate nursing students participated in the homeless health care outreach effort in 2013–14. The nurses administer medications, treatments, and vaccines, including antibiotics, inhalation therapy, skin treatments, pain medications (nonnarcotic), first-aid supplies, and flu vaccines. A licensed physician, a pharmacist, and county health personnel offer consultations as needed and review our standard procedures. The nurses also make referrals to connect clients to ongoing primary and specialty care through local community health centers, county health services, and private health care providers who agree to serve low income clients. APU also partners year-round with the ESGVCH Emergency Assistance Center in Hacienda Heights, providing hygiene care, food, gasoline, and clothing, and evaluating, treating, and referring clients seeking daily emergency assistance.

­Efforts of this scope take teamwork and collaboration from many sources. Throughout the last 16 years of APU’s involvement, the Iota Sigma Chapter of Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society for Nursing has underwritten faculty involvement, Kaiser Permanente Baldwin Park Medical Center’s Community Benefits Program has consistently donated $8,000 to $12,000 annually, and private donors have given up to $18,000 per year. These gifts do more than cover the cost of equipment, supplies, and medications for this population; they make it possible for APU students and faculty to become like the Samaritan—willing, able, and prepared to show mercy to all, and eager to show Christ’s love to their neighbors.

For more information about the programs of East San Gabriel Valley Coalition for the Homeless, visit esgvchomeless.org.

Originally published in the Fall '14 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.