“Arizona heat is an all-encompassing thing. It surrounds you like an inescapable blanket, sometimes so unbearable it is hard to breathe.” That’s how Dr. Randy Christensen, Medical Director of the Phoenix Children’s Health Project, describes the harsh climate many of his homeless patients must cope with.
KIDS ON THE STREET
The mobile medical program he has run for 11 years in conjunction with Phoenix Children’s Hospital treats runaway, “thrown away,” and at-risk young people under the age of 24. Almost all of them are trying to survive on the arid streets of Phoenix and Tempe, in homeless shelters, in group homes, or periodically “couch surfing” with friends or relatives. In addition to this mobile unit, the medical staff manage the UMOM Wellness Center open several days a week on the campus of UMOM New Day Family Shelter.
Young people often visit the 38-foot mobile medical clinic, dubbed the “Crews’n Healthmobile,” with urgent medical symptoms. A painful skin or ear infection, an asthma attack, or a sexually transmitted disease might be their immediate concern, but often there are layers of additional health problems. Patiently building trust, Dr. Christensen encourages them to return for ongoing care. Each time young people come back, the team at the Phoenix Children’s Health Project has more opportunities to help, providing not just medical services, but also a support system that makes sure vulnerable young people receive access to the services, education, and referrals they need.
NOT GIVING UP
Many of these kids have been abused and/or abandoned; they suffer from mental health challenges at three to four times average rates; many have attempted suicide or struggle with substance abuse. But Dr. Christensen isn’t about to give up on them. Over the years, he and his team have learned that treating young people with kindness and dignity, returning week after week to park the clinic in dusty lots and on abandoned street corners, can help lead young people to a better life.
TURNING LIVES AROUND
Some kids just disappear, but hundreds of the program’s former patients have found permanent shelter. Many have jobs, some are even in college. Dr. Christensen knows persistence can help his patients. His biggest challenge these days, he says, is often to convince others “how worthwhile these kids are-how terrible their lives have been before-but how much success they can have if given half a chance.”