Portland HOME Team expands outreach to city’s homeless

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PORTLAND — Driving along Cumberland Avenue, doing outreach to the city’s homeless residents, Courtney Woods said she would welcome a nurse practitioner’s help.

“There are a lot of things people don’t want to go to the hospital for,” Woods said.

By July 1, there will be a health-care professional along for the ride as the Milestone Foundation and Greater Portland Health begin a new collaboration, funded in part by the city, that will expand the services available from what is called the HOME Team.

“As great as the (HOME Team) staff is, they are not RNs or social workers,” Joe McNally, Milestone director of community outreach, said April 7.

An acronym for Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement, the HOME Team was established in 2010 as a collaboration between Milestone, the city, Preble Street, the Opportunity Alliance and the University of New England School of Social Work.

One of the organization’s goals is diversion, helping people steer clear of emergency rooms or police custody.

“We are not only saving folks on the front end, we are hooking them up with services that can make them stable,” McNally said.

Renee Fay-LeBlanc, Greater Portland Health chief medical officer, said April 5 the nonprofit expects to have staff ride along for two hours about three times a week.

Last year, the HOME Team logged more than 13,000 encounters with more than 10,000 people in Bayside. Woods said an encounter is essentially a conversation.

“If nothing else, you are a consistent face they can rely on,” she said.

In 2016, the HOME Team was dispatched to help people more than 250 times, and served more than 600 people, including providing almost 3,400 rides.

Last month, 201 people were served – double the year-to-date number from last year – including 16 of the year’s 199 dispatch calls and more than 300 of the year’s 2,600 rides provided.

“If they call us, they don’t have to tie up a (police) cruiser or two for someone who may just need a sandwich or a place to sleep,” McNally said.

The estimated cost for a MEDCU run to an emergency room is $400 to $700, he said. Once there, expenses can quadruple depending on the type of care provided.

In comparison, McNally said, it costs $500 per day for the HOME Team to hit the streets.

Fay-LeBlanc said Monday the nonprofit’s 63 Preble St. office served 520 homeless patients in the first quarter of 2017, resulting in more than 3,400 encounters. It wants to serve more and mobile outreach is seen as a way to get patients through the doors.

The ride-alongs will allow Greater Portland Health staff to change bandages, treat wounds, check blood pressure and assure those they meet that more care, including mental health services, is available.

Nurse practitioner Donna Lawlor has experience in the field, having ridden along in a similar program in San Francisco in the early 1990s.

“We would try to get things started before they end up in the ER, to build a relationship so you can bring them in for care,” she said. “I’m just super-excited for the opportunity.”

To help fund the collaboration, the city has allocated $117,000 from federal Community Development Block Grant funds, a $23,000 increase.

On April 7, Woods and Jordan Bicki worked from noon-7 p.m., driving from the waterfront to Bayside. The measures of their successes can be small. Connections come from cigarettes and sandwiches, from listening and admonishing.

Tipped that two men were possibly in trouble on Commercial Street, they arrived to find one asleep. The other said he had a back back and could not move his friend.

Bicki picked up the sleeping man’s guitar and played as he and Woods offered them rides to Oxford Street or Milestone on India. They warned the men against staying too long, and promised to return shortly.

Driving away, they got a call: someone was incapacitated in a bus shelter near the Post Office on Forest Avenue.

The woman had been smoking spice, the legal derivative of marijuana Woods said can immobilize smokers for 20 minutes or more with its first rush. The woman also refused a ride, so Woods and Bicki moved on to Oxford Street, near the city’s homeless shelter.

In no more than two minutes on the pavement, Woods had given away more cigarettes and an apple.

“The only gift I got on my birthday was from this lady,” said Scotty Robinson as the team checked on him in a parking lot. He had just turned 52, and Woods gave him a pack of cigarettes. She gave him more as they chatted.

As he smiled and exhaled from his vape, Bicki reminded Woods they needed to return to Milestone for sandwiches, since they tend to people whose behavior has often required Preble Street to restrict their access.

With more than a dozen sandwiches in a bag, the loop began anew as they returned to Commercial Street. The police were there, but both men were on their feet, and the officers let the HOME Team take over.

“That guy can really play,” Bicki said as he took a sandwich to the guitar’s owner. “I had to bug him to get a case for it, though.”

As the afternoon went on, they returned to Oxford Street, and gave five people rides to homes or Milestone. Bicki cranked up the heavy metal on the radio on request from a passenger.

“When I started, it was the old-time drunks,” Woods said. “A lot of people have passed. I look at it for the little bit of good we can do.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

HOME Team members Jordan Bicki, playing the guitar, and Courtney Woods check on two men on Commercial Street in Portland on April 7. Their work helps avoid arrests and emergency transports to the hospital.

“The only gift I got for my birthday was from this lady,” Scott Robinson said about Courtney Woods of Milestone’s HOME Team. Woods was checking on Robinson April 7 in a parking lot off Oxford Street in Portland.

Courtney Woods, left, and Jordan Bicki take a break on Commercial Street in Portland during a HOME Team shift April 7. “If nothing else, you are the consistent face they rely on,” Woods said of working with homeless clients.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.