Ending Homelessness, One Step at a Time

It is an unlikely sight for February in Boston: 1,000 people walking two miles through wintry conditions. However, this is so much more than a walk during the coldest month of the year. It is a mission to end homelessness, which, according to the City of Boston’s Annual Homeless Census, affects more than 6,000 men, women and children in Boston.

Since its inaugural event in 2017, the Winter Walk has been building a community of support for Boston’s homeless and raising critical funds for area organizations which care for this vulnerable population. “This is not a walk for homelessness, it’s a walk about homelessness,” says Ari Barbanell, executive director of the Winter Walk. One of the distinctive elements about the Winter Walk is it welcomes the homeless community, allowing them to share their stories and connect with supporters during the walk and afterward when a community breakfast and speaking program takes place. The face-to-face interactions, Barbanell explains, are impactful. “We walk together, shoulder-to-shoulder with people who are not housed. We’re all there, from all walks of life, learning from each other,” she says. “It’s a change in perception. This could easily be our mothers, fathers, friends or neighbors.”

In addition to the power of bringing people together, the Winter Walk does the same for organizations that support those who are homeless—including Boston Medical Center. While it may seem contrary to the norm for a hospital to address a patient’s housing situation, looking at all of the ways a patient’s health is affected is critical to improving it and BMC is leading the charge in doing so. “Stable housing is the platform for everything else in a person’s life. Without it, it can add a tremendous amount of stress and physical wear and tear on people,” explains Eileen O’Brien, program director of BMC’s Elders Living at Home Program (ELAHP). “The bottom line is you can’t really maintain health if you don’t have stable housing.”

ELAHP—which helps patients transition to permanent housing, maintain permanent housing or prevent them from experiencing homelessness–is just one of a number of ways BMC is addressing this critical social determinant of health. In fact, there are programs and groups spanning numerous areas of the hospital, including the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights (BCRHHR), Project TRUST, the social work department and Socially Responsible Surgery. And while they collectively share the same mission of improving the health and well-being of this population, their names alone are a testament to their distinct role in tackling homelessness and the complexity of each patient’s situation.

Having a range of programs and services means patients are supported no matter the need or how they arrive to BMC. In the case of Project TRUST, a drop-in prevention center, its welcoming, safe environment allows homeless clients feel comfortable to discuss what they are going through. “Many of our clients will just come in to sit down in a place where they can feel safe and not judged,” explains Joseph Shay, a biomedical prevention outreach specialist. “That sometimes leads to conversations where clients open up about what’s going on, why they are homeless, what their needs are and we do our best to help them.” Shay also notes in having these conversations, clients are often connected with area organizations.

Arguably just as impactful as the direct interactions happening through programs like Project TRUST is advocacy and awareness, giving a voice to a population that may not always be able to speak for itself. With Socially Responsible Surgery, founded by Trauma Surgeon Tracey Dechert, MD, FACS, surgeons are making it a daily practice of going beyond the walls of the operating room (OR) by supporting and thinking about social issues through areas of research, education, advocacy and service—including homelessness. “People think of surgeons as just being in the OR and the other doctors take care of the patients,” explains Dechert. “Of course, that’s not true.”

Dechert notes that homelessness can directly impact a patient’s care, especially in cases of elective surgery. “Without a home, how will a patient recover from surgery?”

As BMC continues to make strides towards ending homelessness, it is physically taking strides to do so thanks to its athletic fundraising arm, Team BMC. Members of Project TRUST, the social work department, Socially Responsible Surgery, ELAHP and BCRHHR will be participating in the 2019 Winter Walk, joining together to show Boston’s homeless men, women and children they are there for them through every step of their journeys.

The 2019 Winter Walk is presented in partnership with Boston Medical Center (BMC) and Boston Medical Center HealthNet Plan (BMCHP). Both BMC & BMCHP have been supportive of the Winter Walk since its first event in 2017, and both support BMC’s life-changing programs serving Boston’s most vulnerable homeless adults and children.