An afternoon with medical students helping the homeless – and finding one a home.
On most Saturdays, a group of medical students – the Temple Street Medicine Organization – delivers food and clothing to the homeless.
After loading up on supplies one day this winter, they headed out.
Weighed down with bags and backpacks, they looked like a platoon. What they carried – sleeping bags, lunch bags, blankets, coats, underwear, socks, gloves, hats, scarves, hand warmers, shoes, waters, first aid kit, soap, toothbrushes, and even tote bags, in case the recipients needed help carrying all they were given.
The plan was first to loop around the hospital, and then head south on Broad Street.
One of the first people they met was Jeremiah, sitting on a chair front of a building just off Germantown Avenue, literally around the corner from the hospital.
”Hi. We’re with Street Med,” said Megan Patton, a third-year student. “Do you need any food, water? Gloves, a hat?”
Jeremiah responded as warmly as he was greeted. He accepted and began eating a sandwich. If this folding chair was his throne, he was attended to by these students as a king, accepting a hat, coat, gloves, even shoes. He also began sharing his story. He had two daughters, whose custody he was afraid of losing, and one of whom needed a backpack, which had been stolen. One medical student literally handed Jeremiah the pack off his back.
Slowly, after eyeing this interaction from a distance, many other denizens of the street approached, seemingly out of nowhere.
The day before, the Catholic Medical Students Association at Temple had made 20 sandwiches – turkey and cheese hoagies – and many of those were gratefully accepted. Jeremiah had a second.
Megan, one of the founders and leaders, had wanted to start a street medicine group after she started at Temple in the fall of 2019. But the pandemic soon hit, and her idea was on hold as everything shut down.
Last spring, at the end of Megan’s second year, a then first-year student, Daly Trimble, also wanted to start a street medicine program. Faculty members told her about Megan. These two students and a handful of others founded Temple Street Medicine Organization.
“We Robin-Hooded it,” said Megan, which meant they just scrounged donations from family and friends. "We're kind of like racoons," said Daly. “We take anything.”
They have steadily grown in number and impact, with a formal name and acronym now, TSMO, and have been going out most Saturday mornings since summer, into the fall, and winter.
Many faculty members have accompanied Street Med on Saturdays, and still more have donated.
On Broad Street, just past the McDonald’s, Megan recognized “Ice,” making his way with a walker. They hugged. She gave him a coat, which he needed. He told her he’s living in a recovery house now, that he just got out after months “on the inside” -- and by that he meant Temple Hospital. He’d been hit by a car.
After taking care of his needs, the two caught up.
“What are you reading now?” Megan asked him.
“James Patterson,” Ice replied. “He's got a new book out now. They say they don’t know how he keep doing it, another Alex Cross story. That’s some writing there.”
Megan had met Ice at Zion Cares, another student group, in which students assist members of the community at the Zion Baptist Church next door to the medical school. Ice reads so much, Megan explained, because when it's freezing outside, getting lost in a good story takes his mind off the numbing cold.
Ice agreed to a photo of him and Megan, and wanted it sent to his mother, providing her cell number. She texted back later that day: “Thank you for helping my son and sending me a picture. God bless you all.”
Hannah Rose Roach, another third-year student and Street Med regular, explained to newcomers before leaving that morning that the group’s mission “is to meet people where they are…You are showing them that you respect their decision not to come under the health system in a traditional way.”
As far as medical care, these students know they are limited to minor first aid. They have called 911 on occasion and encouraged others to go to the hospital.
Daly dreams of something much more, in which Temple Hospital supports a larger initiative offering a range of healthcare, social and behavioral services via a street outreach model. “You have to begin by accepting the idea,” says Daly, “we're operating in a failure state. Street medicine shouldn’t exist because street homelessness shouldn’t exist. But until everyone gets a home, healthcare networks need to think outside the hospital walls”
A few blocks further they came upon an alcove, sheltered from Broad Street by a large piece of plastic. Blocking any entrance was a shopping cart and cardboard boxes and debris.
"Street Med,” Hannah called out. “Helena, are you there?”
A woman lay on a mattress and pillow, tucked under another sheet of plastic.
Hannah and Megan so tenderly talked to her, covered her with blankets, put gloves on her hand. Megan promised to get a pillowcase and would stop back soon.
After two hours, the group had given away virtually all of its supplies. They’d walked down to Broad and York, by the Dunkin Donuts, crossed the street and returned on the other side.
Two first-year students had come for the first time that Saturday, even thought they had a biochemistry exam on Monday. “We’re so glad we did,” said one. “We’ll definitely be back.”
• • •
An update from Hannah Roach:
"Helena is now currently in a skilled nursing facility. Due to the amazing generosity and advocacy of Megan Patton, Helena has housing lined up after her discharge.
“Helena calls Street Outreach, especially Megan, her guardian angels. We’ve been able to get her things she needs during her in-patient time, including receipt of her birth certificate and cell phone, as well as her favorites (cinnamon graham crackers and carrot cake). She has been telling us all about her dream of her own room and I am overjoyed that she will have it now.
One thing she asked for was a notebook… She has been writing her stories down and says that it is helping her find some peace. She gave us permission to share this one, which she wrote with Temple students in mind. She…loves to read her poems aloud and wants to share with Temple what she’s learned from her time living on Broad and her time working with us.”
• • •
I am the light of my life
I am the light of my life.
I am the light of my life, and I can be and do amazing things.
I do not have to live though anyone’s eyes
Because that would make me very unhappy.
I appreciate my mom and dad but sometimes I wish they would ask me
What I want to be in life
Because it has been so many failures for that reason
I want to not be a statistic but an achiever
In my own right.
There are so many things I can chose from
And me at 60 years of age--
I chose to be a writer
And I’m glad it’s not too late.
And that’s why I want you
To focus on your future for you.
I am the light of my life.
• • •
Post, Post Script
Hannah Roach also wrote her own reflection last fall.
My Grandfather's Gloves
My grandfather’s gloves were given to a woman named Grace. They were the gloves he used to collect chestnuts that fell from the tree outside his home. He wore the gloves to mind the sharp and needled exterior, as well as to keep his hands warm from the bite of autumn.
I loved seeing them on someone new. Someone who needed help fighting the sting of November. I loved knowing that the gloves that protected my grandfather’s hands were still at work out in the world.
And that’s not all I got to see being given. Scarves and turkey sandwiches and pumpkin cheesecake. Knitwear and recipes and cheer were scattered up and down North Broad Street. Sweaters belonging to parents and siblings and shoes once loved by little brothers were sewed back into the community and into spaces they truly belonged.
I loved knowing that across this Thanksgiving weekend, there were people setting aside ingredients and time with the intention of sharing with neighbors. Homemade baklava and pecan pie and stuffing made its way into the hands of new friends, extending holiday tables down the block.
Michael and Ellen have a love that’s a gift. Fourteen years together, in summer and winter and snow and sun. A love that travels up and down Broad and walks together sunrise to sunset. Michael pushes Ellen in her chair, walking and chatting and doting. Ellen says that “Michael is a gentleman through and through.” When we spoke about what she loves most about him, she responded, “He’s kind.” Michael smiled at that and told us they were going to keep moving now, but to take care. With a squeeze of her hand, they kept rolling along.
I love the most that there’s an energy that catches like the wind. Conversations flow and can turn into fits of laughter or moments taken to sit and think. I love that cars slow down and drivers chat with us through rolled down windows and that handshakes are often extended. I didn’t realize how much I missed handshakes. And then there would be more laughter as hand sanitizer was shared and chestnut-picking gloves given out. I love that these walks have shown me just how much everyone loves to share. It is hard when the medicine we learn and practice is often measured by dollars and itemized bills that show up in mailboxes. There’s something so nice about practicing a medicine built of sharing and giving freely. A medicine that keeps one warm and holds one’s hand.
I know these are only small treatments--lotions and lidocaine patches and phone numbers to call. But there’s something lovely about knowing my grandfather’s gloves are keeping someone warm and my peer’s parent’s scarf is tucked into someone’s new coat and another is walking in the shoes of a peer’s partner. It is a beautiful and wonderful collaboration.
Michael Vitez, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the director of narrative medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org