Philly's much-needed homeless recovery center is open

HELEN UBIÑAS / DAILY NEWS STAFF From left: Deborah McMillan, Jacque Lewis, Linda Webster, Sandra Guillory, Cheryl Scott and Dr. Bon Ku.
HELEN UBIÑAS / DAILY NEWS STAFF From left: Deborah McMillan, Jacque Lewis, Linda Webster, Sandra Guillory, Cheryl Scott and Dr. Bon Ku.
Posted: March 28, 2014

IT'S BEEN a long time coming, but Philadelphia finally has a clean, safe place for its homeless to recover from hospital visits.

Finally, and hallelujah.

This time last year, a recovery center for homeless individuals who aren't sick enough to stay in the hospital, but are too sick to recover on the streets, was just an idea. A really good idea that Dr. Bon Ku, an emergency-room physician who cares for many of the city's homeless - sometimes repeatedly - at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, tenaciously pitched to whoever would listen.

He mentioned it to me last March during a conversation at the Hub of Hope, a winter drop-in center for the city's chronically homeless in Suburban Station. Ku, an easygoing father of two and a volunteer physician at the Hub, had just treated a woman with foot pain and a man who'd been living on the streets with a gaping hole in his belly. Without proper follow-up care, each would likely end up back at the Hub or one of the city's emergency rooms.

For years, he told me, he'd been advocating for a respite center for the homeless that would help slow the costly revolving door of ER health care that's mirrored across the country.

I couldn't believe Philly didn't have a safe and sanitary place for homeless to recover from illnesses that would only worsen on the streets. Other major cities across the country did and were seeing a 50 percent reduction in ER use among those with access to them. So what was up with Philly?

Everyone agreed it made humane and financial sense. But there were obstacles: Location. Space. Money. Always money.

About two years ago, many of the organizations that work with Philadelphia's homeless got really serious about making this happen, said Deborah McMillan, director of homeless and social-service programs at Public Health Management Corp.

"I always say timing is everything," she said.

This time the result is eight beds in the serene, sun-soaked former chapel at Depaul House, a transitional-housing program for men in East Germantown. The pilot program can serve only men now. But even before they've had their first patient, there are plans underway for an expanded program at another location to serve both men and women.

"Every hospital has said the need is just really humongous for them. So we're starting the pilot and planning for a larger program of 20 to 25 beds at a different location," McMillan said.

For now, a gorgeous space awaits its first patients, who will be referred by the so-far three participating hospitals and cared for by a dedicated crew including Ku, Linda Webster, a registered nurse at PHMC, and Jacque Lewis, a PHMC case manager.

While touring the space this week, Cheryl Scott, an aide at Depaul who helped decorate the space with program director Sandra Guillory, showed me a room where she's squirreling away toiletries, full-size bedsheets and sweatpants in preparation for the patients whom staff will not only treat but help with follow-up medical care and housing. (By the way, more donations of the same items are gladly accepted.)

Support and funding for the program came from several organizations, including Depaul, PHMC and the city's Office of Supportive Housing, which covered the cost to renovate the facility and purchase medical equipment. The Women's Board of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital kicked in a $5,000 grant. The state awarded PHMC a grant that will help pay for clinical staff including two nurses. Participating hospitals will also pay a daily per diem per patient.

All in all, the operating budget is about $250,000 - a drop in the bucket given the thousands of homeless in Philly who use ERs as their primary health care, including a young man Dr. Ku recently treated. Ku estimated his care cost about $100,000.

The man, in his 20s, became homeless after fire destroyed the place he was staying. He was sleeping in an abandoned house, got frostbite on his foot and had to have his toes amputated.

After being discharged, he wound up back at the ER several times - once, with just Saran Wrap around his reinfected foot.

"He's a young guy who basically had to have half his foot amputated, and that didn't need to be," Ku said. "It's folks like that who I think we can capture, these high-risk patients who we know are going to bounce back to the hospital who just need simple things, simple interventions that can really save everyone a lot of money.

"Plus," Ku added, "it's the right thing to do."

Phone: 215-854-5943

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