For the first fourteen years of the agency's history, The Night Ministry staff conducted outreach on their feet, supporting the community members they encountered while walking the nighttime streets of Chicago. Realizing that many of those individuals had unaddressed health challenges, in 1990 The Night Ministry added a mobile health care component to the equation via a recreational vehicle.
"We thought we could develop relationships with people by having them come on board while also providing food and health care," explained the Rev. Peter Brick, who developed The Night Ministry's Outreach and Health Ministry Program.
Initially, the RV was out four evenings a week on Chicago's North Side. By the mid-1990s, the program was operating six nights a week and had branched out to other areas of the city. Today, The Night Ministry's custom-built Health Outreach Bus regularly visits six neighborhoods on the South and West sides.
As individuals experiencing homelessness are at greater risk of HIV infection, HIV education and prevention were important aspects of the program early on. A decade after the program began, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approached The Night Ministry about providing HIV testing at the Health Outreach Bus. Two years later, it asked The Night Ministry to pilot a rapid test.
"We went from having a test that would take two weeks to get a result to a test that produced a result in 20 minutes," said David Wywialowski, Director of Outreach and Health Ministry. "When serving a population that moves around often, being able to tell someone their status at the end of an HIV counseling session was a game changer."
Other advancements over the years included the introduction of electronic medical records and the hiring of a full-time Case Manager to help clients with housing, employment, and other non-medical needs. But for Barb Sexton, who served as a Nurse Practitioner on the Bus for more than two decades, what remained constant was the emphasis on nurturing compassionate connections with clients.
"When I go into your neighborhood, I'm on your turf. I'm the guest," she said. "And returning to your neighborhood gives me time to build a relationship with you."
This article is one in a series celebrating milestones in The Night Ministry's 45-year history. Explore the links below to read other stories.