JPS nurses take health information straight to the homeless

FORT WORTH -- Blurry vision has made life on the streets all the more challenging for Thomas Lujan.

"I have a lot of trouble seeing," said Lujan, 49, who says he has been homeless for six years. "I have to listen for cars when I cross the streets."

At the First Street Methodist Mission, Lujan was able to sign up Wednesday to receive routine healthcare and treatment for his cataracts through the JPS Health Network.

"We're not just sitting around waiting for them to come to us," said Mary Perez, community health advocate for the JPS Health Network. "We're going to them."

The goal is to reach out to the unsheltered homeless before they get so sick that they end up in the emergency room, she said. The key to a healthy community is prevention, Perez said.

Besides being better for the patient, it's cost-effective. An emergency department visit costs about $3,000 compared with $500 when someone goes to an urgent-care center.

Twice a month, a team will set up at the Methodist Mission to sign people up for the JPS Connections program. Team members are also visiting many of the estimated 70 homeless camps around town to take blood pressure, do dental screenings and urge people to see a physician.

It is often a hard sell. "Don't be afraid, we're not going to hurt you," Perez told one man as he backed away. "We're only going to help you."

Mental illness and fear often keep the homeless away. Without transportation, they question how they can get care. Keeping a doctor's appointment is a huge challenge for someone who doesn't know what day it is or how to get there, one homeless man said. Those who feel well simply postpone seeing a doctor for months or years.

"I've seen women who haven't had a Pap smear in 20 years," Perez said.

But a minor cold can turn into a serious infection for someone who lives in the elements, said Elizabeth Becker, assistant director for the First Street Methodist Mission. Mental illness and dental and vision problems are common, as well as feet issues.

By coming to the same places where the unsheltered homeless get food, Perez said she hopes to build relationships that will lead to trust. During her first visit, Perez handed out her card and urged everyone to call her personally.

"The best way to build relationships is to just listen," Perez said. "All they want is to be heard."

Jan Jarvis, 817-390-7664