By 2015, The Night Ministry's Health Outreach Bus had been on the road for 25 years, providing free health care to Chicagoans experiencing poverty or homelessness, but the agency sensed it could be making a wider impact on the streets.
"There was this inkling that we could reach more people who were really falling between the cracks if we were a little more flexible and more mobile," said Erin Ryan, Senior Vice President.
In search of new ideas, Ryan and David Wywialowski, Director of Outreach and Health Ministry, attended a conference on health care for the homeless. As luck would have it, Jim Withers, founder of Pittsburgh's pioneering street medicine program Operation Safety Net, was seated right behind Ryan. The two struck up a conversation. "He asked me, 'What do you know about street medicine?' And the rest is history," she said.
Backpack Medicine, the initial prototype, launched as the winter set in that year. A small team, usually consisting of Wywialowski, a nurse, and a social worker, would set out once or twice a week. With backpacks filled with survival supplies, they visited scattered encampments and unsheltered individuals in hard-to-reach locations.
Over Street Medicine's young life, it has steadily grown from serving one day a week to six. Not only has the schedule expanded, but staff has increased to include a full-time Case Manager, a Nurse Practitioner, a Substance Use Advocate, a Peer Support Advocate, and Outreach Workers. The program's comprehensive approach helps clients meet their basic needs while also providing assistance with housing, harm reduction, and more.
In 2019, Street Medicine upgraded to a custom-made van complete with a space for medical exams and consultations, exterior lighting to illuminate dark spaces, and organized storage. Today the team regularly visits over 40 sites across Chicago.
Noam Greene, Lead Outreach Worker, said Street Medicine's dependability strengthens its connections within the communities it serves. "Just like any relationship, it takes time to build trust, and we've been able to demonstrate we are going to keep coming back," they said.
This article is one in a series celebrating milestones in The Night Ministry's 45-year history. Explore the links below to read more stories.