Plain Talk: Homeless get health care at compassionate ‘hut’

Originally published by Dave Zweifel in The Capital Times on March 08, 2013.

From the outside, the place doesn’t look like much — an out-of-the-way Quonset hut on a narrow two-block-long street on the city’s south side off busy Fish Hatchery Road — but inside it’s a temple to many down-and-outers who often fall between the cracks here in Madison.

The simple sign on the door reads “HEALTH,” an acronym for Helping Educate and Link

More than 40 volunteer physicians, nurses and other health care professionals provide the majority of health care services for the HEALTH program.

the Homeless. It’s open every weekday and several evenings to provide free health care for those mostly faceless people we know as the homeless. St. Vincent de Paul, which has a food pantry across the street, owns the World War II building and has donated its use to the program, and Meriter Hospital’s foundation has provided funding to buy supplies and medication and equip the examination room.

The program exists, after all, because of Meriter Hospital doctor Cate Ranheim and her UW doctor-husband, Eric. While volunteering at community shelters during their free time over the years, they decided that the city’s growing homeless population had a serious health crisis. Homeless people don’t have money, carry no insurance and usually can’t get on Medicaid. Their only recourse if they get sick enough is to go to a hospital emergency room.

So the two doctors rounded up some colleagues and opened the “Hut,” as the little building is affectionately called these days. Since mid-2009, the two doctors and up to about 40 others who occasionally donate their time have treated an estimated 1,100 homeless people at the site.

In addition to the obvious humanitarian aspect, treating people before they get seriously ill can save a lot of medical expense in the long run.

Dr. Cate explained that people can just walk into the clinic, which is located on Culmen Street just south of the Capital Newspapers’ plant. Often they walk to the clinic from downtown or wherever it is they’ve put up for the night.

Many have diabetes or suffer from heart or liver ailments. Many have mental illnesses. Some are alcoholics and drug addicts. But, despite the problems, Dr. Cate emphatically points out, some are able to get back on their feet. And that sometimes happens because they can get well.

“No matter how tired from work I might be, I’ve never felt more energized than when I’m here,” the doctor added, when I asked her why it was she and the others put in this incredible amount of time for a population that all too many don’t ever think about.

Nurse Carlos Gonzalez, who is one of just two paid employees at the Hut (the other is a receptionist), added that if you get only one out of a hundred to get their lives back, it’s all worth it.

There have been some tense scenes at the clinic, the doctor admitted. Some of the clients, after all, are suffering from severe mental illnesses. But, she added, they’ve typically been able to defuse the situation. The homeless, she explained, are people, too, just like you and me.

My former colleague Phil Haslanger, now a United Church of Christ minister, has written about this unique program in the monthly column he writes for The Cap Times. So have Madison Magazine and the State Journal’s David Wahlberg. They have all praised the work as an example of how a few people can make a huge difference in the community.

It is also an example of how unselfish and caring some people can be.

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One Response to Plain Talk: Homeless get health care at compassionate ‘hut’

  1. Colette says:

    Thank you to each of you for your good work. Go, Meriter, go!!

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