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CU's Street Medicine team meets unhoused patients where they're at

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Guy Neiderwerfer knows from experience just how hard medical care is to come by for unhoused people. "You feel lonely and you feel hopeless," he said.
William Peterson, Rocky Mountain PBS

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Health care is often a low priority in a person's life if they are experiencing homelessness; surviving hour to hour is their main concern, explained 53-year-old Guy Neiderwerfer.

He lost his job, his apartment, and has been surviving on the streets for several days. “When you’re looking for medication even, you’ve got to go through so many steps just to get help,” Neiderwerfer said.

This is not the first time Neiderwerfer has been in this situation.

“It feels like there is no hope, and it makes you feel doom and gloom. You feel lonely and you feel hopeless," he said. "It’s a common loop to walk around and feel like ‘What am I doing and what kind of help can I get?’”

Neiderwerfer said that access to food, medical care and employment is often so spread out that without access to transportation, seeing a health care provider moves to the bottom of the to-do list.

CU Street Medicine’s mobile health care clinics aim to eliminate some of the barriers to health care for the unhoused by literally meeting people where there are.

Colorado Voices

Mobile medicine clinic bridges barriers for the unhoused

Scott Harpin is the co-faculty advisor for the program and an associate professor of nursing at the CU College of Nursing.

“The CU street medicine program is a grassroots students group that organizes around meeting the medical needs of people experiencing homelessness in our community, specifically rough sleepers and people who have to survive in locations like this, like parks and bikeways, and trails and downtown on the sidewalks," Harpin said.

Nearly 7,000 people are currently unhoused across the state, according to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. After working for the Coalition and then graduating from CU College of Nursing, Kiera Connelly decided to volunteer for the CU Street Medicine Program.

“It’s extremely important for us to be out here because people experiencing homelessness have more co-morbidities and a higher risk for pretty much everything than the the housed population," Connelly explained. "That being said, they also have the most barriers to accessing health care.”

[Related: Extreme weather can be deadly to unhoused people. Here's how you can help.]

Connelly frequently visits hiking trails in the Commerce City area along with other CU Street Medicine volunteers to administer health care for the unhoused. She said before offering any kind of treatment, the team must first build trust with the patients, which can take time.

“Once people get comfortable and open up, we will do blood pressure checks, wound care, blood sugar check," Connelly said. "We also check and treat frost bite, and then make recommendations for them for navigating the health care system.”

Connelly said not only is the goal is to make health care more accessible to those who might need it the most, but also to show the patients that some people are trying to help. “As a nurse, being able to show that 'Someone does care enough to come out here and talk to me about my heath problems and wants me to get better or wants to help me maintain my health' — I think that’s huge.”


Dana Knowles is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at danaknowles@rmpbs.org.

Lindsey Ford is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at lindseyford@rmpbs.org.

William Peterson is a senior photojournalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at williampeterson@rmpbs.org.

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