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Street Medicine Survey Sheds Light on Experiences of Unsheltered Chicagoans

220520-NightMinistry-streetTeam-1227 Senior Nurse Practitioner Stephan Koruba consults with a patient. A new survey provides insight into the challenges faced by unhoused Chicago residents.

The Night Ministry's Street Medicine Program provides free health care, food, survival supplies, and supportive services to unsheltered individuals across the city. To stay informed on the program's progress and about its clients, the agency's Learning and Impact Department conducts an annual Street Medicine Survey.

The survey aims to identify who the program serves, what their needs are, and how successfully Street Medicine is meeting those needs.

"It gives us a way to get the stories that we know our Street Medicine clients experience into a concrete written form. It also gives clients the opportunity to tell us what's going well and what they still need help with," said Learning and Impact Analyst Casey Tkacz, who led the survey. 

This year's survey found that nearly 9 in 10 of those served were staying outdoors; of these, 20% had no protection from the elements, such as a tent. Other respondents shared they were staying temporarily with others or in shelters. Most of those surveyed had been living outside for more than one year, and a substantial portion shared they had been unsheltered for three years or more.

Job loss and family conflict were the most common reasons cited for losing housing. Other factors included substance use, issues with a landlord or with housing, and release from incarceration.

Survey results showed that Street Medicine is reaching individuals of many backgrounds. 40% of respondents identified as white, 24% as Hispanic or Latino, 16% as Black, 8% as Native American, and the remaining 12% as another race or ethnicity.

"It's good to see that we're reaching the diverse population that I know we're serving among folks living on the street. The data really reflected that, especially because we've been focusing a lot more on the West Side and South Sides of the city," Lead Street Medicine Outreach Worker Kyanna Johnson explained.

More than 75% of respondents identified as male, a percentage in line with national statistics, and of a median age of 47.

"I'm surprised by the median age," Johnson continued. "But being on the street ages you so much that unless somebody is telling you outright how old they are, it's really hard to tell."

Most respondents were living with at least one health condition. More than half were experiencing depression and over 50% have dental issues. Arthritis, high blood pressure, alcohol abuse and asthma were other commonly reported health challenges.

For regular treatment of these conditions, approximately a third shared they visited a clinic or a health center, about a third visited the emergency room, and just over 20% said they did not receive health care. The remaining percentage relied mainly on other services.

The survey found that Street Medicine is filling the gaps in their care, with 81% sharing that they received care from The Night Ministry's medical professionals. And clients rely on the program for other services too. 

The vast majority received food, water, clothes, and hygiene supplies from the Street Medicine Program. Over half also accessed case management services and obtained harm reduction supplies like clean syringes and Narcan, an anti-overdose medication.

Interestingly, the survey found that more clients were receiving harm reduction supplies than shared that they used drugs.

"They're not taking these items only for themselves," said Tkacz. "That means safe supplies are being disseminated beyond the people we interact with. Even if we don't contact everyone on the street, we know that our clients are offering them to people within their communities."

Community is at the heart of Street Medicine's service too, and it shows, as 92% of respondents shared they trusted the team's staff. 

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