Like almost any major city, Memphis has a sizable homeless population. Two healthcare providers have banded together to open a free healthcare clinic that provides care for medical conditions and mental illnesses among this vulnerable group.
On March 1, local providers Baptist Memorial Healthcare and Christ Community Health Services opened the Baptist Operation Outreach clinic. The clinic is located in the Midtown neighborhood of Madison Heights, which is home to the majority of Memphis' homeless population.
“It’s a better outlet for those that are homeless to get medical care. It’s more personal now. It’s a facility where they can sit and wait, more like a doctor’s office," said Tamara Hendrix, organizing coordinator for H.O.P.E. (Homeless Organized for Power and Equality), a support and advocacy group of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center.
"It’s also very accessible to those people that are homeless right now because most of the services are concentrated in that area,” she said of the Madison Heights neighborhood.
The Baptist Operation Outreach clinic operates inside the Catholic Charities of West Tennessee facility at 1325 Jefferson Avenue. Services include immunizations for patients, behavioral health services and the ability to do basic diagnosis, treat diseases and minor injuries. The clinic is also stocked with basic medications.
Cantice Robinson takes blood samples from a patient at a new clinic that opened in February 2019 to serve the healthcare needs of Memphis' homeless population. (Ziggy Mack)
The brick-and-mortar clinic is born out of a van-based mobile clinic that partners Baptist Memorial Healthcare and Christ Community Health Services launched in 2004. The mobile clinic travels across the city with a healthcare provider who delivers similar free services as the brick-and-mortar clinic.
“The overall picture of what we are doing now is an expansion of our services. We are coming into the clinic location here to complement the free healthcare services that we are already offering through the mobile van, but now have a stationary mortar brick building that is a home and healthcare center for the homeless,” said Jan Taylor, program director for Baptist Operation Outreach, which is staffed daily with a healthcare provider and a nurse practitioner.
“We will be able to do screen diagnostic testing and work with those patients to get their testing done and do their follow up,” she added.
Follow up appointments will also be available at both the brick-and-mortar site and the mobile clinic, which will remain in service at its current location in the parking lot of Catholic Charities on Mondays and Fridays, when the clinic is closed. Clinic hours are Tuesday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The mobile clinic operated by Baptist Memorial Healthcare and Christ Community Health Services worked with 3,000 patients in 2018. (Ziggy Mack)
The mobile van will continue to serve other parts of the city: Memphis Union Mission on Mondays, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on Poplar on Wednesday mornings and the Office of Reentry on Mississippi Boulevard on Wednesday afternoons.
“What we plan to do in future with the mobile van, our hope is to go farther out into the areas and communities of the city; take that van farther out; create and develop new partnerships. One of our first partnerships will be First Baptist at Broad," said Taylor, who also brought up needs in the Hickory Hill and Whitehaven neighborhoods.
Dana Brooks, director of housing ministries for Catholic Charities, estimates that there are 1,226 people in Memphis and Shelby County who are currently experiencing homelessness.
The needs are most evident in the Madison Heights community. The concentration of the homeless population is mostly due to the services available in the area. In addition to the work of Catholic Charities of West Tennessee, Manna House Memphis and St. Vincent de Paul Food Mission operate within a small radius of each other in the neighborhood and along its main artery of Cleveland Street.
“There are soup kitchens, clothes closets, places to get food vouchers and shelters concentrated in the area,” said Hendrix.
Manna House offers basic donations like clothing, hygiene items, showers, coffee and beverages to its clients. The food mission, meanwhile, is a soup kitchen that also provides social services.
While homelessness can seem an intractable problem, the numbers have fallen since the high watermark of 2012, according to Brooks.
“As a city, we have reduced chronic homelessness by about 67 percent and veteran homelessness by 42 percent. Family homelessness is down 50 percent, while unsheltered homelessness is down 69 percent,” said Brooks.
David Clark and others collect donated clothing goods at Catholic Charities, 1325 Jefferson Avenue. (Ziggy Mack)
Part of that decrease is attributed to the Continuum of Care initiative, which Memphis-based Community Alliance for the Homeless initiated in 2012. The initiative links together 27 service providers who work together to evaluate and process the needs of homeless individuals. All clients are accepted in the same way under a coordinated entry program and referred to relevant service providers.
The Baptist Operation Outreach clinic is a member of the Continuum of Care as are the other service providers in the Madison Heights neighborhood.
Once a person is determined as homeless, a case manager makes a vulnerability impact assessment, which identifies any disabilities, mental illness, income, length of homelessness and previous use of crisis services in the city or county. Those individuals are then prioritized by need.
“Everyone in Memphis is a partner of this system. Coordinated entry tries to bridge the gap from shelter to home or unit; we want the shelter to be a trampoline,” said Brooks.
Memphis and Shelby County do not have any free or public shelters. All shelters come with some type of fee which feeds the need for individuals to panhandle or keeps them on the street. H.O.P.E is readying a campaign in April to look at what’s in the county budget, evaluate all programs and see if any money could be allocated toward a public shelter.
Volunteers serve food to clients at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Memphis Ozanam Food Mission. (Ziggy Mack)
“The hope is we can build some free shelters, especially for single women and single men. We would really like a city-run free shelter. It’s been proposed but we’ve been told so many times that we don’t have the money in the budget,” said Hendrix.
Memphis only has three main shelters with about 800 beds available. The average fee is $13 a day.
“By the time you have been there a month you are basically paying rent. It is expensive, especially for one with zero income,” added Brooks.
Placement in an apartment unit or home is the top priority for those connected to the Continuum of Care. There are two approaches that communities, agencies and charitable organizations take to address housing placement in Memphis. One approach is permanent supportive housing projects, where the tenant receives an indefinite amount of financial assistance and wraparound case management. According to Brooks, there are about 1,380 permanent supportive housing beds in Memphis.
Catholic Charities employs another method called rapid rehousing, which is temporary assistance during a six to nine-month period.
“Some take more, some take less. It is six to nine months of financial assistance and case management and then the case management continues for another six months after the financial assistance stops,” said Brooks.
Catholic Charities has a yearly capacity of 765 beds for rapid rehousing. Catholic Charities' services for the homeless population are grant-based and are partially funded through the City of Memphis and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Over 80 percent of Catholic Charities clients have no income. After they are settled, their case management begins.
Through the rapid rehousing program, Catholic Charities leases apartments or homes in the client’s name. The clients receive assistance with startup fees as well as supplies to make their new home more livable.
These are usually taken from Catholic Charities' clothes pantry at its Madison Heights site. Set up like a store, it is also stocked with donated household items.
“The homeless need stability and services where they don’t have to return to homelessness again. They need support. One fellow we had to teach to wash his clothes because he had never washed his clothes before. So working out the things they don’t know and getting them that help and not judging them for it,” said Hendrix.
A patient speaks with staff spiritual health advisor Grace Young (right) at the Baptist Operation Outreach clinic, which opened in March to serve the healthcare needs of Memphis' homeless population. (Ziggy Mack)
The availability of housing for Memphis' homeless population is stagnant. Memphis’ HUD programs have a 91 percent retention rate, meaning few units become available. To transition from temporary housing to market-rate housing, clients need to have sustainable income.
“We really need creative ways to get our population income,” explained Brooks.
Yet, many people who experience homelessness are suffering with a disability, which limits their earning potential.
“If they have a disability, they will probably earn a seven-dollar wage. Others have applied for disability, and have been waiting years but have not been approved,” said Brooks.
Lack of a driver’s license can derail an employment opportunity. Mental illness is also a common obstacle.
“The connection between the job opportunity and the applicant is still really difficult," added Brooks.
While some numbers show there is still work to be done, others reflect success. For example, HUD has contracted Catholic Charities to serve 65 households per year with wraparound case management. This year, the nonprofit has already served 96 families. Overall, Memphis has shared in that success, too.
"It can be difficult, but I feel like we are making great strides,” said Brooks.