On a recent, particularly muggy Miami evening, I accompanied a medical outreach team from Camillus Health in its mission to help the members of South Florida’s most hardened and withered homeless population. Many of them refuse to accept medical attention or shelter.
Rose Anderson, a nurse practitioner who has worked with Camillus Health for more than two decades and who leads the weekly ventures to some of the city’s most desolate areas, said that most of the people who are chronically homeless have a mental illness, which in many cases leads to substance abuse.
“The alcohol and drugs, many times, are an effort to medicate the pain and suffering caused by the mental issues,” she said.
Anderson’s team is an enthusiastic group of nurses — a mix of volunteers and employees of the clinic. Many of them are young professionals who sought the challenging career path of helping those who many consider helpless.
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After rush hours, as their nondescript white van pulled along the shoulder of a seemingly empty downtown street, people began to gather around. Soon the medical team was dispersed in a semicircle tending to people in what now was becoming a crowd. There was a warm familiarity between the health workers and many of the people coming out of the shadows. For some, it was their first encounter with the team.
From my vantage point, it looked like a group of angels in blue — most members of the medical team were wearing blue scrubs — tending to the ills of the city’s invisible and undesirable.
There are no quick fixes to homelessness, often the result of a series of unfortunate incidents and happenstance in a person’s life. Though I have been fortunate and blessed in many ways I, like many, have lived through hard times. I understand that, thanks to a few additional supportive friends and family members, there but for the grace of God go I.
That evening, I had a chance to chat with a homeless Miamian named Sheila. A former postal worker, she has been out on the streets for eight years. Just a few years older than I, we shared stories about growing up in Miami. Our conversation was pleasant and engaging, one I easily could have had with someone at a grocery store in Kendall or the Grove.
I asked about her status with Adrian Mesa, one of the nurses. He said that Sheila suffers from schizophrenia, which steadily led her to the streets. Upon learning of her condition, I glanced back at Sheila, who by now was having a full-blown conversation with herself. Adrian treated her with the respect and compassion that every homeless person was offered that night — the kind of care and understanding that any of us would like to be afforded if we were in Sheila’s shoes.
The front line of despair in Miami is not nearly as harsh as when Rose Anderson began to work with the homeless. Because of the Homeless Trust, established more than 20 years ago and that helps fund agencies such as Camillus House and Health Clinic, many homeless families and individuals have received the necessary aid and support to get back on their feet.
Though the homeless problem is not endemic to South Florida, our weather, our large transient population and our growing role as one of the country’s most significant immigration entry points, makes the homeless issue one that demands constant attention.
While the answers to solving homelessness lie in addressing the ills that lead people to live on the streets, it is imperative that we continue to support and sustain the institutions that maintain the level of care and compassion that I saw during one dreadfully muggy night in Miami.