Church and medical school join hands to serve unhoused

Date Posted: 2/10/2022

Rev. Michael Gienger waits to get his COVID booster shot. Photo by Troy Griffin 
By Lindsay Peyton - En Español
The second story at Galveston Central Church has been transformed into a medical clinic for the island’s homeless population. The clinic, developed during the past year in collaboration with the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), is preparing to welcome its first patients later this month.
At Galveston Central, all are welcome, regardless of socioeconomic status, and the distinction between who is served and who is serving is blurred intentionally. In the kitchen, for instance, housed and unhoused individuals cook together. The church also offers a shower facility, laundry machines and a bike repair shop to those in need.
In the near future, a long list of medical services will be added to the list. If people come to the church for a shower or a meal, they can simply walk upstairs for a check-up or to discuss medical concerns.
Rev. Michael Gienger said that an unexpected email eventually led to the partnership with UTMB. Gienger received a note from Professor Miles Farr at the medical school. “He reached out and wanted to get to know us,” Gienger recalled.
Dr. Farr discovered the church from some of his students who volunteered there. “I heard about the great work they were doing at Central with a population who had a lot of social needs,” he said.
And he had been brainstorming ways to also better provide medical services to homeless communities. “We need to rethink how we do things,” he said. “How do we go to the community where people are and change the model of how we deliver care?”
Farr attended medical school at UTMB and then completed his internal medicine and pediatrics residency training at Mass General Hospital in Boston. While in Galveston, he was the student director at St. Vincent’s clinic, a student-run facility that offers care to both underinsured and uninsured patients.
While in medical school, he also traveled to Ecuador for primary care outreach and Panama for research. Students went to the border of Mexico to assist community health care workers. “We did a lot of outreach to the community,” he said.
When Farr returned to UTMB, he hoped to one day incorporate his interest in public health and outreach with his career as faculty. Then, Dr. Ben Raimer, named university president in 2021, reached out. “He really wanted to support community engagement,” Farr explained.
With Raimer’s encouragement and support, Farr contacted Galveston Central. And that’s how he wound up at a coffee shop with Gienger and Rev. Julia Riley.
“The three of us talked about what they were doing, their philosophy,” Farr recalled. “What they were doing was so genuine, how they support and empower folks. It fit with how we do outreach at UTMB and try to meet people where they are.”
Dr. Farr (right), Martha Diaz, RN and Dr. Aigbivbalu take inventory of supplies at clinic. Photo by Troy Griffin
That was the beginning of several brainstorming sessions to determine how university and church could join and best serve the community. Different faculty members at UTMB got on board, including the School of Nursing. “All of these folks brought different skills to the table,” Farr said. “There was a lot of synergy. We felt like we could help each other.”
Dr. Raimer had established the office of Community Engagement and Interprofessional Education, which guided the effort and provided oversight. A committee for this project included faculty, church members and students.
Instead of saying “this is what we can do and what we can offer,” Farr said UTMB’s approach was “tell us what you need and how we can be helpful.”
He knew that Central was already a trusted, safe place for the unhoused population. His goal was to preserve that atmosphere and listen to the church for guidance. “We wanted to keep our visions in line,” he explained.
The church had a location in mind. The second story of the building was once used for Sunday school, with a large gathering space and smaller breakout rooms. “It was perfect for a clinic,” Gienger said.
UTMB began gathering resources, equipment and supplies, as well as seeking funding. A class from the School of Nursing painted the upstairs rooms of the church for the clinic.
In the summer, a pilot program was launched. Church members trained students and faculty in their program and philosophy, especially how to treat the unhoused population with dignity and kindness.
Then, the pilot clinic opened for service. Providers offered primary care, a dentist was onsite and clinical labs were analyzed. Prescriptions were also filled for free.
Gienger said that foot care was one of the main priorities. “Our folks are on their feet constantly, walking and biking,” he explained.
When patients arrive, they take their shoes off, soak their feet and clinic staff can help with calluses, trimming toenails, wound care and assessing other health concerns, from fungus to diabetes.
“It was really robust and amazing work for this clinic that just popped up,” Gienger  said.
After the pilot ended, the pastor was convinced. His next order of business was getting other leaders on board. A memorandum of understanding was developed with UTMB and St. Vincent’s Clinic, which is also partnering on the project.
UTMB also spent the months assessing the pilot as part of a review period. The university secured more resources, built additional relationships and  brought a community nurse, Martha Diaz, on board. “She’s amazing,” Farr said. “She’s there every week, and she’s bilingual, which is extremely helpful.”
A social worker was also added to assist with housing, disability and other concerns. The university incorporated occupational therapy, physical therapy and mental health into the program.
UTMB incorporated the future clinic into its curriculum. For instance, nursing students in the population health course will spend required hours at the location with faculty members.
Occupational therapy students and a faculty leader will provide activities at the church. Medical residents will also be able to work at the clinic.
Nursing students observe as COVID shots are administered. Photo by Troy Griffin
The facility provides students with hands-on opportunities to learn how to care for the homeless population, Farr explained, as well as how to do a better job with outreach in the community. He added that these students will become future leaders in the medical field – and this experience can help them become stronger advocates of healthcare equity.
“It’s one piece of the bigger puzzle we are all working on together,” Farr said. “And it’s exciting to think, if we are successful, how we can grow – to different places and to meet different needs.”
The patients being served at the clinic will have records visible at St. Vincent’s and UTMB. If a more pressing need is present, the individual can receive specialty care at St. Vincent’s, Farr added.
“Central had the foundation in place,” Farr said. “People already trusted them. It’s a safe space, where they already felt cared for and comfortable. That was really important and already established.”
And that existing infrastructure is essential, he added. “The church and the people there are key to everything,” he said. “We’re not just a clinic upstairs. We’re building a relationship.”
“We couldn’t just set up a clinic somewhere else,” Farr added. “It wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t be the same at all.”
Gienger explained that the clinic functions in conjunction with all of the other services at Galveston Central. And even those services are expanding, thanks to a grant from the Permanent Endowment Fund (PEF) of Moody Methodist Church, which provides grants to nonprofits around the world to advance care in the name and spirit of Jesus.
The PEF grant totals $440,000. Gienger said the gift will allow the renovation of the church’s first floor, improving the kitchen space and common area. The church will be able to build workstations with computers, renovate the bike shop and add more showers.
“We’re finalizing floor plans now,” Gienger said. “The whole first floor will be transformed and let us do our work better.
Gienger said that churches can take a role to ensure that both souls and bodies are cared for.  “We’re convinced that spiritual life is part of our actual life,” he said. “And we’ve really outsourced a lot of work that should be up to us.”
The pastor pointed to Jesus’ sermon in Luke, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.”
“We have to think seriously about what that means,” Gienger said. Instead of deferring work to nonprofits and others to help those in need, the church can step up and allow God to keep moving.
Farr said students are required to watch a video from church leadership about how to care for the homeless population before they start working in the clinic. “There are very clear expectations and values of the church that we follow,” he explained. “We are guests in every way.”
And he is eager to see the clinic begin serving the community, as are the faculty of UTMB and the staff at Galveston Central. “People are so excited, the faculty and the students,” Farr said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to make a difference – not just immediately but in the long term.”