Student-led program provides health care kits for the homeless

Graduate students at the University of Georgia College of Public Health are delivering health care to Athens’ homeless population – one gallon bag at a time.

The program, called Community Care, distributes kits containing first aid supplies, gummi vitamins, energy bars, personal hygiene items, socks, foot powder, a flashlight and other items aimed at making living on the street a bit more bearable.

“Universally, people have a right to a certain level of health care,” said program founder Michael Bien, a Master of Public Health student in the College of Public Health.

There is an estimated 212 homeless individuals and families in the Athens area, according to the 2018 Athens-Clarke County Homeless Point-In-Time-Count.  Twenty-two percent of this population is unsheltered, and accessing basic medical care can be a challenge.

“These health care kits offer a way to do something on a small scale to provide help for individuals in our community who do not live in shelters or have access to these items from other service providers.”

Bien, who founded the program, initially developed the care kit project as proposal for a student grant program aimed at funding community outreach projects.

In May 2018, an area that served as a camp for Athens-area homeless for nearly 15 years was cleared by the Georgia Department of Transportation during road safety improvements.

It was an event that struck a chord with Bien who recognized that people living there would struggle with access to basic needs and services, like water or a medical clinic within walking distance.

He decided to make his health care kit proposal a reality.

“I felt a need to be part of something positive. Something that put the political stuff aside and simply benefited people in need,” Bien said.

Bien reached out to United Way of Northeast Georgia, Athens Nursing Clinic, Action Ministries, Salvation Army, and the Backpack Project @ UGA for assistance in developing the gallon-bag sized kits.

As the health care kit project took shape, fellow classmates stepped up to lend a hand. The College’s graduate student-run organization, the UGA Public Health Association, adopted Community Care as a priority outreach initiative.

With the help of PHA funding and donations from local businesses Add Drug and Hodgson Pharmacy and dentist Dr. William Rice, Bien and fellow PHA members were able to assemble 50 care packages.

This past fall, PHA partnered with faith-based community center The Sparrow’s Nest to distribute the care kits. Located down the road from the College of Public Health on Prince Avenue, The Sparrow’s Nest provides food, hospitality and other services for the homeless and other at-risk populations in Athens’ inner city.

With an eye towards the future, the students are exploring the idea of attaining non-profit status for the health care kit program in order to sustain their outreach efforts for the homeless and expand avenues for fundraising.

They are also looking to expand partnerships with local agencies, like the UGA/AU Medical Partnership Athens Free Clinic and Mercy Health Center, who provide free health care for Athens’ under- and uninsured populations that may also face homelessness.

“In the meantime, we are once again collecting new items and reaching out to more potential donors,” said Bien. “We want to maintain our momentum and keep moving forward in our effort to improve the health of members of the Athens homeless community.”

To learn more or to contribute to the Community Care program, contact PHA Outreach & Project Coordinator Michael Bien at [email protected].

– Rebecca Ayer

Posted on December 17, 2018.

Photo: Michael Bien and Bailey Collette, MPH students in health promotion at the UGA College of Public Health, pose with health care kits distributed through the student-led program Community Care.