Wednesday, February 16, 2011 | The question posed to the homeless men and women who waited in Anaheim's La Palma Park Tuesday afternoon was a simple one.
What would you do if you got sick?
"You suck it up," replied a man sitting on a blanket who did not want to be identified. "Hopefully, you snap out of it -- if not, you die."
Standing nearby was Shirley Lee, a homeless woman hoping one day to return to her native Shreveport, La.
"If you get sick, you're in trouble," she said, while she and others waited at a pick up point for a trip to the armory where they could spend the night out of the oncoming rain. "It ain't no play out here. You hope and pray you don't get sick."
Such is the harsh reality as seen by many of the 8,000 or so each day who live on the streets in Orange County. This is a population that is particularly vulnerable, not only to an array of minor ailments like colds and flu, but also to serious injuries, infections and diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.
But increasingly, there is a more hopeful answer. Volunteer doctors, nurses, dentists and other medical and social services professionals, nonprofit organizations and county leaders are working together more these days to integrate their services.
One place where this integration is taking place is the Lestonnac Free Clinic in Orange, one of 21 such clinics located throughout Orange County. The clinic saw more than 7,000 uninsured patients in 2010, many of them also homeless, and has satellite offices in Santa Ana, Los Alamitos, Stanton and Tustin.
Founded in 1979 by the then 80-year-old Sister Marie Therese, the clinic works with a team of volunteer doctors and dentists, has a partnership with Kaiser Permanente for a nurse practitioner and relies on other volunteer medical professionals.
"I've always run this clinic with a passion for the patients because I was a patient and I know what it's like to be in that position," said Executive Director Edward F. Gerber.
In the early 1990s, Gerber and his wife ran a pet store in Orange County. When a national chain opened a big pet center a few blocks away, Gerber's store went out of business and he and his family were without medical insurance.
When his son needed medical treatment, Gerber brought him to Lestonnac and his family ended up being treated there until Gerber, a trained accountant, could afford insurance.
It also turns out that in addition to medical help, he found employment. He started out doing some accounting for the clinic and then became its controller. Then, five years ago, he became Lestonnac's executive director.
The clinic adheres to its Roman Catholic roots by not providing birth control or abortion services, but does not receive funding from the church and does not impose theology on patients, Gerber said.
"There's a time and a place to talk to people about religion but I don't think the time or the place is when they feel obligated to listen to you because you're providing a service for them," said Gerber, who was a Jehovah's Witness before converting to Roman Catholicism.
In the past five years, the clinic has broadened the range of medicine offered by its volunteers. Now, in addition to general practitioners, it can call on oncologists, cardiologists and many other specialists and all of the county's other free clinics can refer patients to its specialists. In addition, it operates a weekly food bank supplied by Second Harvest.
Next up is a remodeling project that will open up space for ophthalmologists so the clinic can begin eye exams and glasses.
The clinic also works with groups like Latino Health Access to get health care to those who need it and it provides the medical supplies used by the Illumination Foundation, which works to provide medical care for the homeless, wherever they may be in Orange County.
Last year, the foundation's mobile clinics, staffed by volunteer doctors from Kaiser Permanete, served about 2,500 patients. But it is part of a larger bi-partisan effort, backed by both the Bush and Obama administrations and supported by Orange County government leaders and health officials, to end homelessness altogether.
Every three years volunteers fan out around the country and try to count those living in cars, parks and on the streets. Results from last month's count won't be available for a few more weeks, but the 2009 survey determined more than 8,000 people each day are homeless in Orange County.
Working toward the goal of ending homelessness, the Illumination Foundation this year is moving away from mobile clinics and is using buildings for its one-stop system for the homeless where health, including mental health, and housing and job counseling needs could be met.
The program helps the homeless and benefits all taxpayers, supporters say, by decreasing expensive emergency room visits and generally improving the health of those with nowhere to live.
Progress toward at least reducing homelessness is already being made, said county health officer Dr. Eric Handler, who is a pediatrician.
It was Handler, after all, who, a few years ago, visited one of the armories that serve as overnight homeless shelters in the winter and realized that families with children were sleeping in the shelters along with all of the other adults.
"I was appalled as a pediatrician and a physician," he said. Now, families with children are housed in motels until more permanent living arrangements can be made.
There are hundreds of nonprofit organizations in Orange County that provide food, clothing and other services for the poor and homeless, in addition to the free clinics operated by Lestonnac, the Illumination Foundation, Share Our Selves in Costa Mesa and several other groups and hospitals.
But as the daily realities at La Palma Park reveal, many of the homeless are unaware of services or are physically or mentally unable to reach them.
A woman who has been diagnosed with lupus and who has been homeless for about two months, said she went to a welfare office and is in the process of trying to qualify for insurance for the indigent.
"They do have free clinics," she said. "But they're hard to find. There's no ‘homeless' listing at all."