By Phil Costello
As Clinical Director of Homeless Care for Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center, Phil Costello leads the medical team that works with people who are experiencing homelessness on a daily basis. At DESK, Phil and his team are available on Wednesday nights to provide onsite services, including outreach, first aid, referrals, and prescriptions. Phil also helps to coordinate other healthcare volunteers at DESK, such as the Yale Hypertension Awareness & Prevention Program, as well as volunteers from the Yale School of Nursing. Phil has been an important adviser and resource at DESK concerning health issues that affect such a vulnerable population as the people we serve.—ed.
Being able to provide medical care at DESK’s evening soup kitchen is a great honor. Those who are homeless in New Haven have a great appreciation for DESK, often citing the warmth and respect of volunteers and staff that make it happen. They have come to count on their evening meals for sustenance, warmth, and, most of all, dignity.
Our medical services at DESK include: urgent care, medical case work, connection to Behavioral Health Services, and connection to medical specialists. We do this in collaboration with Yale’s undergraduate volunteers, the Yale School of Nursing, Yale primary care medical resident program, and Cornell Scott’s own group of volunteers—“The Volunteer Medical Corp of New Haven”—a group of retired and active medical professionals who work to improve care for New Haven’s most vulnerable.
What makes DESK so important?
DESK cares for the most vulnerable in our community: “hard sleepers,” or people who tend to resist shelter at almost any cost. In the winter, after all most have gone into shelter, DESK opens its doors for dinner and warmth. For many of these hard sleepers, DESK is the last warm place, the last food or drink, the last clean bathroom, and the last safe place before the night’s cold sets in on the streets.
Who are “the homeless”?
No race, ethnicity, social class, socioeconomic status, or cognitive ability is immune to homelessness. Among their ranks are Ivy League Scholars, Union Tradesmen, lawyers, doctors, bankers, hockey players, football players, soccer moms and grandparents. I’ve met them all. Many worked throughout their lives but were never able to save for retirement; some have worked in very strenuous jobs for years and suffer greatly from arthritis and other work-related injuries. For some, the death of a spouse or loved one was too much, and now, grief- stricken, they are unable to cope.
Recent studies have shown that many people experiencing homelessness have experienced repeated traumatic brain injuries. More than 70 % of these brain injuries occurred prior to instances of homelessness. (In other words, these our friends who we watch play football, lacrosse, and hockey—who never truly recover.) A significant percentage of the people I see suffer from mental illness.
How should one best interact with and help people who are homeless?
Be mindful and present in your interactions on the street. Take the time to acknowledge others’ needs. And advocate for those needs. In doing so, you will begin to build trusting relationships that are ultimately helpful in improving their lives.
Get to know them. Hear their stories. Make a difference.