Heart for the Homeless: Serving, Listening, Learning

The student volunteers who work with Heart for the Homeless know the importance of listening with intention and having their preconceptions constantly challenged. Heart for the Homeless is “an undergraduate student group from Washington University in St. Louis that aims to improve the health of the St. Louis homeless community through medical education and connection to primary care.”

The organization has three main goals around which they organize their work: to give homeless individuals a better understanding of their current health, to show them that they have the power to improve their health through achievable lifestyle changes, and to inform them of primary care providers within their geographic and economic reach.

Heart for the Homeless offers several health fairs per semester. The fairs are scheduled to align with meals served by partner organizations such as Peter and Paul Community Services, Covenant House, and Garfield Transitional Center. The student volunteers offer basic health screenings, measuring BMI, taking blood pressure, and testing blood sugar. They also provide one on one consultation about next steps for improved health, in particular giving clients recommendations on the nearest Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) where they can receive primary care services based on a sliding scale relative to income. Heart for the Homeless makes sure to specify that they cannot provide medical care. Rather, they equip clients with information, helping them to seek care.

Volunteers Rehan Choudhury (’20) and Kasyap Tenneti (’19), who have been active in the group since 2016, shared the history of the program. The project planning stage launched in January 2015, with the first two health fairs conducted in December 2015. The organization received non-profit status in the 2016-2017 academic year and expanded the board and began recruiting volunteers. Last year, Heart for the Homeless received a St. Louis Projects Grant from the Gephardt Institute’s Civic Engagement Fund to expand their work. St. Louis Projects Grants support substantial initiatives in the St. Louis region with clearly defined community partnerships. The organization’s co-president, Alicia Liu (’19), said that, given the amount of resources the organization requires, the grant had been invaluable. “The grant gave us the resources to really get off the ground,” she explained. “It gives us the freedom to be creative.”

Heart for the Homeless is nothing if not creative and innovative. They have launched two new initiatives this year, a nutrition initiative and the FQHC initiative to research the availability and feasibility of primary care options for clients. They have big visions as the organization continues to grow, and they think critically about its impact. Abby Wong (’19), Development Chair, shared her goal of reaching a broader volunteer and partner base. She hopes that the organization can incorporate the skills and perspectives of students beyond the field of pre-health. She said, “We want to bring in a diversity of fields and offer a holistic approach.” The organization has begun to do this through an Investigative Project on policy and healthcare access. Alicia expressed the hope to offer more resources through strategic partnerships with other community groups. A dental group came to one fair recently to provide fluoride, and Heart for the Homeless is working to partner with an attending physician. Alicia also stressed the value of the research and development phase. “We’ll be digging in this summer to listen carefully to what the community really needs,” she said.

Heart for the Homeless seeks to impact not only the health of the clients and communities they serve but also to broaden the worldview and sense of empathy of volunteers. Volunteer member Kasyap explained the program’s effect on his understanding of the world: “I grew up in an upper middle class area and generally didn’t see homelessness. This experience has allowed me to interact with the homeless population, understand their needs, and relate to them as individuals. It has opened my worldview.” Similarly, Rehan said, “It has been eye-opening to see the application of our medical screening results and advice. Homeless individuals have to work within stringent restrictions, but we are able to provide a better understanding of their current health and small changes that can lead to bigger outcomes, with or without insurance.”

When asked what she would like the broader WashU community to know about Heart for the Homeless, Alicia encouraged the creative input of community members. She said, “We’re looking for ideas. We want to hear you. We have the resources to help carry out the logistics if you have a vision.”

Learn more about Heart for the Homeless here. Apply for a Civic Engagement Fund Grant here.