Front Street Clinic serves city's homeless

Posted: Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Most of the time, Martina Dundas has to choose between rent and food. As a single mother of a 4-year-old boy, she has trouble finding and keeping jobs.

"It's a juggle. When you have day care, there's no job opening. When there is a promising job, you cannot find day care," said Dundas, 28. "We have to live on food stamps."

Health care is probably the only thing Dundas doesn't have to worry about. Since last winter, she has been going to a homeless clinic on Front Street to treat her arthritis and diabetes.

"They are really accommodating and caring," Dundas said.

The Front Street Clinic, which provides medical and dental care to more than 400 homeless people in Juneau a year, just celebrated its one-year anniversary. Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, a comprehensive health care provider for Alaska Natives, founded the clinic last fall through a federal grant. The clinic serves both Natives and non-Natives.

"We have about 1,600 patient visits a year," said clinic manager Lee Ann See. "It's not unusual for us to get three or four new clients every week."

Most of its clients know about the clinic through word of mouth. The clinic works closely with such local agencies as the Glory Hole, Bartlett Regional Hospital and Juneau Alliance for Mental Health. These agencies refer patients to one another.

Van Roper, nurse practitioner of the clinic, said about 50 percent of its clients are from outside Alaska.

To reach out to clients who are not in the downtown area, Roper visits St. Vincent de Paul family center in the Mendenhall Valley every Wednesday afternoon. The center shelters homeless families with children.

"During the tourist season, a lot of people are attracted to Alaska. They thought they could find jobs pretty easily. But there is only a limited number of jobs in tourism and they cannot drive to get out of here," Roper said. "They are stuck in Juneau."

Some of the clinic's patients used to work in the fishing and logging businesses.

Roper said he treats a lot of cuts, sprained ankles and rashes. "Many of our clients camp in the woods and they hurt their knees and ankles easily," he said. "We also see a lot of skin diseases because they don't get a bath regularly."

Alcoholism and mental illness are prevalent among the clients, See said.

"Many of our alcoholic patients are not ready for treatment. We just do whatever we can to take care of them. But if they are ready for treatment, we try to get them into treatment programs," See said. "However, some people don't have the money or insurance to go to the Juneau Recovery Hospital."

The clients' transient nature poses special challenges. Sometimes staff members go to homeless shelters or visit derelict boats to locate their patients.

"We have to send some of our samples to labs in Kent, Wash. It might take a couple of days to get the results," Roper said. "Some clients might go to another city or just disappear when the results come back."

The clinic can conduct tests on human immunodeficiency virus (the virus that causes AIDS), diabetes and pregnancy, and know the results immediately.

"It's important to know the results before our clients disappear into the bushes," Roper said.

Although they might see some patients once, See said many of their other patients come back.

"They trust us," See said. "We are able to develop a rapport with them."

The staff's compassion might be the reason why the patients come back. See said she has undergone many hard times in her life. Roper was a diesel machinist before becoming a nurse. Before coming to Alaska, he was a medical director of a clinic for Native Americans in Oregon.

"We do it because we care about them. We don't make judgments," See said.

• I-Chun Che can be reached at ichun.che@juneauempire.com.

Front Street Clinic

• 225 Front St., Suite 202, Juneau

• Phone number: 907-463-4201

• Open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

• Closed Wednesday. But patients can visit the staff at St. Vincent de Paul family center, 8617 Teal St.



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