A Night of Perspective - Students spends a night out in the elements. By: Katie B. Hennessey
“I don’t like to give homeless people money because they’ll probably just spend it on drugs. Besides, I worked hard for my money, why don’t they do the same and just get a job?” The preconceptions on homelessness are rampant. Statements from even the altruistic type can seem distant and insensitive. It’s easy to peg the other’s life scenario from the outside, but what happens when you lean in, join the same circle as someone experiencing homelessness, and simply listen to the periling journey of one’s story?
That’s exactly what happened on the back courtyard of UIW School of Osteopathic Medicine. The school’s program Street Medicine San Antonio, (SM-SA) has been conducting street rounds across vulnerable areas in the city, where individuals experiencing homelessness are not only given access to health care, but they are reminded that they are not forgotten by the health community. Students and faculty, eager to deepen their understanding of homelessness, spent a night out in the elements, sleeping on cardboard boxes and listening to stories of individuals overcoming homelessness in a simulation called, Night Out.
“I miss having a normal life,” Robyn, a Kendalia woman, currently living on the San Antonio streets said. “It would be so nice to have a home, where you feel safe and have a family. I have two kids and a granddaughter, and I can’t even visit with them. Because where am I going to meet them?”
Robyn sat beside Vince and Vern, two middle-aged men with hard life experiences leaving them without a home.
Temperatures dropped as the sun sank on a Friday evening, a narrow porch awning and tree foliage were the only shelter during successive stints of rain. The participants piled close to hear stories fit for gloomy weather.
“I never in a million years would have imagined myself here.” Robyn said, “That’s how fast life can change.”
Robyn had a house, she had a family, she had worked for 27 years, eventually becoming a restaurant manager. She thought everything was stable, until the relationship she was in became abusive. While trying to get away, she found herself in a situation of homelessness.
“I was very cold, and life had hardened me. I didn’t care about anything,” she said. “I thought- I don’t care what you’re going to do to me because it’s already been done. And that’s a dangerous attitude to have.”
Since her time on the streets, Robyn has been brutally beaten, stabbed and stolen from. She is on disability for lupus, PTSD and other severe illnesses. She recently received a new electric wheelchair, but to keep anyone from stealing it in the night, she sleeps in it.
“This life is not for anyone,” Robyn yields.
Participants of Night Out, tucked a cardboard bed underneath the porch cover to hide from the rainy elements. The thin pallet offered little protection from the cold, concrete ground. Motion lights from the campus building turned on and off throughout the night, making an uneasy night’s sleep.
Night-watches were kept throughout all hours of the night. Participants took hour-shifts, waking the next person up when it was their turn. They did this in remembrance of their new homeless friends, who sleep with their belongings buried close to them, keep dogs to watch over them while they rest, and cling to people they can trust.
“Until you live an experience, you can’t really understand it.” Laura Jaremko, SM-SA Outreach Coordinator said, “You can study it in a book, you can talk to people, but having your own body feel it is the best way to remember things and know how to fix them.”
Morning aches after a long night not only revealed the discomfort of outdoor city sleeping, but for SM-SA students, it offered insight into specific areas of the body in need of treatment after a hard sleep.
The overnight simulation, which prohibited phones to authenticate the experience, passed time by creating plarn mats- upcycled plastic grocery bags cut into strips and woven into multi-purpose mats. SM-SA creates these mats to perform Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment during their street rounds, offering pain relief to patients. Afterwards, the mats are handed out as water-resistant sleeping pads.
Dr. Hans Bruntmyer, assistant professor at the School of Osteopathic Medicine and founder of SM-SA organization has made street medicine his mission. On a weekly basis, Bruntmyer runs a clinic at day shelter, Catholic Worker House, he takes students on street-rounds to establish patient relationship, and conducts follow-ups with existing homeless patients. This year, street medicine will be included as an option for UIW’s underserved medical rotation, where students will gain clinical experience in the vulnerable medical population.
Before Vern, Robyn and Vince returned to their place of sleep for the night, the students asked what they would want the community to know about homelessness. Vern responded, “It could happen to you. You could be three paychecks away from being homeless.”
These words stuck with Jaremko. “That gives us perspective. Most people don’t look at these people like they are human beings.” she said. “They are just like us. We all just want to be heard, we all just want people to acknowledge that we are around.”