THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH—Health care offered at homeless shelter

Many of Columbus’ homeless not only battle the elements, but struggle with illnesses, too. Because most don’t have primary care doctors, they can crowd emergency departments, which are supposed to treat severe injuries and acute, life-threatening illnesses.

But a new recuperative care program at a homeless shelter just west of Downtown aims to stem those visits.

PrimaryOne Health, which operates government-funded community health centers in Columbus, is working with the YMCA and Community Shelter Board, which runs the Van Buren shelter at 595 Van Buren Dr. Six beds opened there on April 18, said John Tolbert, PrimaryOne’s community services director.

It’s part of a six-month test program, but there is an expectation is that it will become permanent because of the need, he said. The respite center will provide transitional housing, meals and case management in addition to short-term medical care to patients whose chronic health problems often are exacerbated by living on the street or in shelters.

The center is staffed by PrimaryOne Health’s Health Care for the Homeless program. A nurse is on site from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The shelter’s staff takes care of patients other times.

It is modeled on similar efforts elsewhere, including a center in Boston that opened 20 years ago, said Lori Summers-Corey, PrimaryOne Health’s homeless program coordinator.

“There’s long been a dire need here in Columbus,” she said.

Health problems within the homeless community can worsen because of poor diets, exposure to the elements and limited access to transportation, Summers-Corey said.

She said nearby cities have similar centers, including a 14-bed program in a Cincinnati nursing home and a 10-bed program in a Louisville, Ky., shelter. The average stay in such centers is 40 days, she said.

In Columbus, emergency department staff members will assess patients and those who would benefit from care at the Van Buren Center will be transferred by cab, she said. The center also will provide bus passes.

Sara Loken, a shelter-board spokeswoman, said the program came together after PrimaryOne Health approached the YMCA, which then went to the shelter board.

The six–month pilot program will cost about $71,000, Summer-Corey said. Funding will come through Medicaid. Two of the six beds are now occupied, but all are expected to be filled soon.

Jeff Klingler, president and CEO of the Central Ohio Hospital Council, said 6,100 homeless individuals visited Columbus hospital emergency rooms in 2014. Of those, 625 were admitted.

Summer-Corey said the goal is to eventually have 20 to 25 beds in Columbus. The program could be expanded inside the Van Buren Center or moved somewhere else.