For those who live on the streets of Tampa, staying healthy and getting proper medical care can be an unrealistic expectation.
The city hosts one of the largest homeless populations in the nation. According to Hillsborough Community Atlas, there are 2,243 homeless living in the area.
Of who, many cannot afford health insurance, qualify for Medicaid or hold regular doctor’s appointments, which forces them to live outside the traditional health care system.
As third-year USF medical student Shawna Foley said, many of Tampa’s homeless often have few options for maintaining their health.
“There’s definitely this huge problem with homelessness that is right in our backyard,” she said. “These are people who could really use our help and have nowhere else to turn.”
Foley is the volunteer director and one of the founding members of Tampa Bay Street Medicine (TBSM), a small group of 20 to 30 USF medical students who conduct medical “street runs” and free health clinics to provide Tampa’s homeless community with free preventative health services, which range from handing out simple hygiene supplies to administering wound care.
Since the group’s first street run in April, medical students from the team travel every other Friday to areas around Tampa Heights, Tampa’s oldest neighborhood that lies just west of Ybor City, to directly aid homeless patients.
During each run, Foley said there are typically two teams consisting mostly of lower and upper-year medical students who participate. The upper-year medical students lead the interactions with patients, while beginning medical students typically act as scribes and record the treatments that are administered.
Each team also has a supply coordinator, who keeps track of the medical supplies and equipment students use to treat their patients.
Abby Pribish, a first-year medical student and one of the team’s supply coordinators, said students are supplied with a variety of medications and equipment to meet their patients’ wide range of needs.
“We bring a lot of different supplies to the street runs because we see a lot of different needs,” Pribish said. “A lot of patients have wounds that we can help take care of, or they have simple medical complaints, things like a cough or a headache or hip pain … (we have) different supplies that you would need for conducting physical exams, like thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, exam gloves, flashlights, things like that.”
Foley said the group’s board members and co-founders also attend street runs and assist with patient care or simply converse with patients about better health care practices. They may also give out contact information of other free health care providers or talk with patients about their lives in general.
“One of the biggest things we do as board members is just connecting with our regular patients and … just seeing if there’s anything we can do that may not be medical,” Foley said. “I think for me as a board member, one of the most enjoyable things is that I get to go connect with these people on a regular basis. They know us, we know them, and we look forward to seeing each other when we go on our street runs.”
Because the street runs allow the group to go out and directly treat homeless patients in the city, many of the students are also given a firsthand look at some of the hardships of living on the street in Tampa.
“One of the most challenging situations we run into is doing street runs when it’s raining,” Pribish said. “There’s not a lot of shelter on the city streets, so a lot of homeless patients congregate under the I-275 overpass … there are a lot of people there, and it is kind of miserable. It’s cold, and it’s loud because of the road over your head, and it’s wet, but it seems like in that kind of situation we have the biggest opportunity to … make these peoples’ lives a little bit easier.”
Another way TBSM has recently begun providing health care to Tampa’s homeless is through free health clinics hosted at The Well on N. Florida Avenue in Ybor City. The Well is a microchurch that offers a number of services to the homeless and has partnered with TBSM to host free health clinics at their facility.
Dr. Lucy Guerra, an associate professor at the USF Morsani College of Medicine and one of the team’s faculty advisers, said free health clinics allow students to provide homeless patients with personalized, in-depth health care, as well as continually monitor the health of patients who have been to the group’s street runs.
“We brought each patient in … did wound care, examined them, and we did incision and drainage of abscesses and that kind of thing,” Guerra said. “Some of the patients who are homeless live in that area, and some of the same people that we see on (street runs) are the same people that show up at clinics. They need help for their high blood pressure or they have an infection and want to make sure that they’ve gotten better.”
Guerra said the clinics take place on the first Saturday of each month from about 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the team will have time to see up to 12 patients. Like the group’s street runs, she said students meet with a number of people with a wide range of backgrounds, as Tampa’s homeless community consists of people from all walks of life.
“The very first clinic that we had at The Well, we had a gentleman come in who had actually been a professor at the University of Minnesota,” Guerra said. “He’d been living on the street for probably about five or six years, but he had … his faculty ID card. This guy had just spiraled downhill. He had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and eventually ended up in Tampa because he had some family here … he’s one person that could probably get off the street if he could just get back on his medication and have some support.”
TBSM first began when Jason Ricciuti, the group’s president and founding member, attended the 2013 International Street Medicine Symposium, a conference hosted by the International Street Medicine Institute on some of the most vital street medicine practices. The institute is the head of a network of over 80 communities practicing street medicine, including TBSM.
Ricciuti began recruiting members to join the group, set up some of the team’s basic guidelines and collaborated with another USF student group to receive initial funding. After the group’s original board members were decided, the team spent a lot of its time organizing and planning how it would conduct street runs.
While Foley said TBSM has built a strong relationship with Tampa’s homeless community, it wasn’t always that way.
“On our first run, it was kind of awkward because the homeless didn’t really know who we were, and it was difficult to connect at first,” Foley said. “But the more we showed up and the more that we put ourselves out there and talked to people, the more people started to seek us out, and now everybody out there knows that we’re coming every other Friday and expects us to be there.”
The group plans to continue expanding in the future. Guerra said the team has already planned on adding additional health services to further assist its patients. These include free HIV screenings and a woman’s health clinic at The Well.
Though TBSM is currently subsisting entirely on a 2014 grant from the Alpha Omega Alpha medical society, the group plans on becoming an official USF student organization to receive additional funding for future street runs and clinics, as well as to attract more medical students to help aid Tampa’s homeless and become more aware of the city’s issues with homelessness.
Students interested in
volunteering with TBSM or donating to the group can visit the team’s website at
“I think for the most part, med school is a bubble, and you get really involved in your studying, and you forget about all those real world situations,” Foley said. “(Practicing street medicine) changes your life in a way that I wasn’t really expecting it to. It alters your perception of what’s around you and the people that are suffering and what you can offer to them.”