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Hannah Jones

SafeHouse and GSU expand medical care for those without homes

GSU's Cheru Atraga and nursing undergrad students chat outside of their twice-a-week clinic at SafeHouse Outreach. (Photo by Meg Buscema) Note: All photos were taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Hannah E. Jones

For folks who don’t have consistent access to shelter or work, accessing quality healthcare can feel like an impossible task.

In Atlanta, that applies to quite a few folks. Roughly 3,200 residents are without a home, according to a 2020 report by Partners for Home, and many are forced to make do without visiting the doctor.

Wanting to help provide medical access to folks without shelter, Georgia State University (GSU) and SafeHouse Outreach have partnered together for over a decade.

SafeHouse is a nonprofit situated in downtown Atlanta, bordering the GSU campus, providing support and resources to residents without homes.

Last semester, GSU nursing student Lauren Newhouse spent her Thursdays helping care for some of downtown’s unhoused residents.

Two days a week, Newhouse and about 20 other undergraduate students visited SafeHouse to provide health screenings and discuss the patients’ needs. 

Student Anna Woo conducts a health screening with a patient. (Photo by Meg Buscema)

A central component to the visit is foot care, where the patients receive an Epsom salt foot bath and clean pairs of socks — instant relief for anyone consistently on their feet.

“It just really turned into a spa day for them, I think,” Newhouse said. “And I just I love to see the instant relief of putting your toes in some warm water, you could just kind of see that moment [of relaxation].”

The students also walk their patients through best practices for general wellbeing, like diet and blood pressure, along with ways to manage existing health conditions.

“We had a gentleman who was a diabetic, and he was giving himself insulin shots, which is really great,” Newhouse described. “However, he was reusing his needles because he didn’t realize you’re supposed to change it out every time, and there’s a risk for infection. But he didn’t know where to get a new supply of needles, so there are just some little things that create a huge barrier in their care.”

Their visits weren’t all business, though. During her time at SafeHouse, Newhouse enjoyed seeing familiar faces, and there was a trio of men who she was always excited to catch up with.

“They were just like the best buddies ever; you would always see them together,” she said. “They were just the sweetest, most genuine characters I have ever gotten to meet. These people were experiencing some very unfavorable conditions, but they would always come in with a smile, and I swear I felt like I was their granddaughter, and it truly felt like I was just catching up with old friends every time they came in.”

“When you are an institution like Georgia State and have a homeless population two or three blocks away from you, and if you are not doing something, that is a problem,” Atraga said. (Photo by Meg Buscema)

Cheru Atraga, clinical assistant professor at GSU’s nursing school, coordinates the community clinicals for the undergrad nursing program, like the trips to SafeHouse. Like Newhouse, he emphasized the importance of connecting with the patients on a human level rather than focusing on labels. 

“We call the clients ‘friends,’” Atraga noted. “So, when we say mental health, we are also playing that role by giving them a good smile, good greetings and good conversation. It gives them a really good feeling of being accepted.”

Besides mental health, SafeHouse CEO Josh Bray noted other barriers to good health — like the carb-heavy foods offered at shelters and the “never-ending cycle of being in a state of sleep deprivation.”

Some clients are referred for treatment at nearby practices because the students aren’t yet licensed to practice medicine. This is a helpful step, Atraga explained, but it still presents a myriad of barriers to access, like transportation and financial burden.

Wanting to provide more services, Atraga, a certified family nurse practitioner, envisions establishing a permanent clinic at SafeHouse.

Bray is a huge proponent of the plan, emphasizing that the city needs a variety of options for folks to receive care.

“We need easy, quick access to basic medical health for those that are living on the streets. And it needs to not all be in one place,” he said. “If someone’s on the streets and they’re terrified of life, they’re not leaving more than a couple of square block area.”

Bray continued, “We as humans all have varying opinions and varying likes and trusts, right? Well, when you hit homelessness, that doesn’t change. So there are plenty of people that absolutely love SafeHouse and hate Crossroads, and [vice versa].”

Both Bray and Atraga hope to grow the partnership, expand medical access and help break down the stigma surrounding unhoused folks. 

“[The patients] are also aware that there’s an awkwardness there because most of the students don’t come from a background of having engaged with those in homelessness,” Bray said. “So as an organization, it’s great for us to be a part of helping people see people through a lens that is a little bit more clear.” 

If you want to learn more about SafeHouse and its mission, click here.

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Hannah E. Jones

Hannah Jones is an Atlanta native who recently graduated from Georgia State University, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for two newspapers. Hannah managed the Arts and Living section of The Signal, Georgia State’s independent award-winning newspaper. She has a passion for environmental issues, urban life and telling a good story. Hannah is excited about the opportunity to serve the City of Atlanta and its people. Hannah can be reached at hannah@atlantaciviccircle.org.

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