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A House Call to Patients Who Have No Home
by Terry MessmanStreet Spirit

House calls may be a thing of the past, but Kerry's Kids and Dr. Karen Kruger have come to pay a house call today to children who don't even have a home.

The mobile health van has just driven up to see the homeless children at Harrison House in Berkeley, a shelter and transitional housing facility run by BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency).

When Karen Kruger, M.D., shows up at Harrison House on a Monday evening to do medical check-ups on homeless children, she has come from an earlier 24-hour shift at Children's Hospital Oakland. The parents of the children she will examine have had equally trying days.

Katie Baggot, 19, a residential counselor at Harrison House, explained why Kerry's Kids is so needed by the homeless families. "I think a lot of parents are overwhelmed with their lives when they come in here, and they don't necessarily have the time, the energy or the concentration to go to the hospital, especially when you sit in the hospital waiting room for up to eight or 10 hours, if you even have Medicare."

It is such a relief for parents to have Kerry's Kids come in to Harrison House so that "all they have to do is show up to keep their kids healthy," she said.

"I know if I lived here, I would be dealing with just the fact of being in a shelter," Baggot said, speaking from personal experience. She herself ended up homeless on the streets at the age of 12. "I would find it emotionally devastating. I think I might feel inadequate as a parent. I'm not saying people should feel that way, but I know as a human being I would feel that way. Also, you have to try so hard to get yourself together. Housing is so impossible to find in the Bay Area.

"It's just an overwhelming process to get back on your feet. So sometimes you're unable to think, 'I wonder what's going on with this rash on my kid's face?' But it could be a big deal. Or this cold could be bronchitis, could be pneumonia. So it's good that we take care of it early before it turns into something really detrimental to the kid's health."

Today, Dr. Kruger has brought along two of her own four children, Aaron, age 8, and Elijah, 5, to play with the children living at the shelter while she does medical exams. They're bursting at the seams with eagerness to go play with some kids their own age. Kruger said it's important to bring her own children to the shelter.

"I want our families to connect," she said. "I know their family, and they want to know mine. Our kids play together and it's an important connection. And I want them to know there are people in the world trying to make things better."

If the homeless families receive quality health care delivered to their door for free, the volunteers of Kerry's Kids receive a great deal back. Kruger said, "It is their home, their shelter, and they welcome you into their home with complete open arms and gratitude. They say, 'Thanks for coming.' The kid draws you a picture, the mom comes over and gives you a hug."

Inside the modified RV that serves as a mobile health clinic, Kerry's Kids coordinators Matthew Uretsky and Ariel Chairez are arranging appointments and getting the needed medical supplies in order. Matthew is a dedicated volunteer for Kerry's Kids, and sees his work as a sign to the larger society that it must provide better health care to children living in poverty.

"I believe in universal health care," he said. "As wealthy as our society is, we should be able to provide health care to children regardless of their social status. Seeing children that are sick at night because no one in government wants to spend money on medicine makes me want to cry; or it would make me cry if it weren't for the doctors volunteering at Kerry's Kids and working at Children's Hospital."

Immunizations-and teddy bears

Uretsky and Chairez proudly show off an important part of their "medical equipment" - dozens of children's books and lots of new teddy bears that will soon be given to each homeless child they see. Children are often traumatized by the experience of homelessness, so when Kerry's Kids shows up, it doesn't just bring out the stethoscopes and medicine and immunizations, it brings along all the tools of the healing arsenal - funny books, stuffed animals, and lots of hugs, playful humor and unmistakable affection.

Soon, Dr. Kruger will conduct medical interviews while Uretsky and Chairez measure the kids' height and weight; but first, they spend most of the first hour of their visit laughing with the kids, reading to them and throwing a football around.

Kelly Manchester, a young homeless mother who has been living in Harrison House for 45 days, brought her three-year-old, Blayze Trent, to see Dr. Kruger. As she watched her child playing with the volunteers of Kerry's Kids, she said, "I'm glad they're here because it's so convenient. They're caring and they play with the kids and are nice to them. And they remember them each visit! It's so nice when people remember your kids."

Travis Hill is a single father living at Harrison House while raising his son Bobby, 7, and daughter Ellie, 3. As Dr. Kruger talked to his children, Hill said that he is doing a job-search every day and taking part in recovery programs, which makes his days long and his time scarce.

"It's difficult enough being a homeless parent, you know, just trying to provide for them and make sure we get here to the shelter on time and get to dinner on time," Hill said. "It's just been really convenient not to have to jump on the bus and miss meetings to be able to go see a doctor.

Kerry's Kids mostly does well-child care, checkups, immunizations and other needed shots and screening, and provides minor acute care for scratches, ear infections, and respiratory problems. "There's lots of studies out on how far behind they are in immunizations in shelters," Kruger said. "For whatever reasons - you're battered and you leave your home, or there's substance abuse issues or whatever - immunizations just don't usually make it to the top of your priority list. You're more focused on food, clothing and shelter."

She explained that another important part of pediatrics is health education given to the homeless parents; it can make a big difference in preventing health problems or identifying medical needs early.

When they find children with more serious medical needs, they refer them to the hospital. Kruger said, "We try to get the homeless kids into a regular doctor so they have what we call a 'medical home' where there's a continuity of care. We don't pretend we can be their regular doctor because we're not there in between times."

The Henry Robinson Center

Dr. Bob Savio goes with Kerry's Kids to the Henry Robinson Multi-Service Center, a large transitional housing facility in downtown Oakland that is home to hundreds of homeless adults and children. When the center is packed, Savio said, "a lot of sick kids end up crammed together in the middle of winter."

Savio, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital, has worked with Kerry's Kids from its beginning. "Kerry's mission was to go to the shelters where they live so they do not have to get on four different buses to get to a health clinic," he said. "If they're not back by 6 p.m. they don't eat at the shelter, or don't get in. We're trying to eliminate one of their many burdens."

Seeing at first hand the hardships that homeless parents have to overcome has given Dr. Savio new respect for the strength of the human spirit.

"I get so much more out of it than they do," he said. "It's one of the times you realize how resilient people are. Here I am whining about my PG&E bill, when these guys are crammed into their rooms, doing their best to take care of their kids against unbelievable obstacles. They're doing everything they can to use their limited resources for their kids. I find it inspiring."

Savio went through his medical residency at Children's Hospital with Dr. Kerry Spooner-Dean; in many ways, his life has been transformed by the shared dream that has become Kerry's Kids.

"I can honestly say that my volunteer work with Kerry's Kids is clearly the most satisfying professional work I've ever done because there's a huge need, and incredible gratitude on the part of the patients and families," Savio said. "It just totally warms your heart."


Street Spirit is a monthly journal published by the American Friends Service Committee reporting on issues of homelessness, poverty and economic justice.

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