When the winter sun sinks in Venice the cold creeps in. This is not the time to huddle homeless on a sidewalk. Between Dec. 1 and March 15, the governor turns the National Guard Armories in Los Angeles County over to a winter shelter program coordinated by the Union Rescue Mission.
For the past 12 years, doctors from the have been providing free health exams on Wednesday nights to the Venice homeless bused into the Culver City Armory. The facility hosts more than a hundred beds, filled mostly by men of all races.
The routine was the same for all patients: Those in need first registered with clinic coordinator, Taide Soltero, who recorded their names, looked up their records and took their temperatures.
“I just love it,” Soltero said.
Medical assistant Blanca Lopez checked blood pressure and recorded the patients' weight. She then moved them to the attending physician to discuss their specific needs.
“I really like helping people,” Lopez said.
Dr. Greg Yesensky, the doctor on duty, told me that the most common ailments he handles are coughs and colds.
“If left untreated, they can develop into bronchitis, then pneumonia,” said Yesensky.
Having had that disease twice myself, I know that trying to breathe while your lungs are filling with fluid is a losing battle without antibiotics.
Yesensky explained that the homeless suffer from the same ailments as the rest of the population, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, but that they face another hazard. Their medication can often be stolen.
“I’ve had diabetics come in here after they’ve had their needles stolen who are too embarrassed to ask for replacements. When they’ve come back for a follow up exam, their blood sugar is off the charts,” Yesensky said.
Hillman Jones is a homeless diabetic who takes daily insulin. He was still making the adjustment.
“It’s my first winter here at the shelter,” Jones said.
Jones was there for insulin refills, he carried a box of needles to exchange. Diabetics lose sensation in their extremities. If unnoticed, infection can readily set in leading to amputation. Jones was concerned about numbness in his feet which prompted an exam. He characterized the treatment he got from the doctors at the shelter as, “first class.”
Some of the homeless were surprisingly buoyant. After Jones left, Darryl Jackson joked that he’d never date a diabetic woman who lost her toes, because he was “Lack-toes intolerant.”
Despite the fact that Jackson had fallen on hard times, he was proud of the fact that he was a junior college graduate. He was optimistic about the future, recently landing work renovating Martin Luther King Hospital. Jackson was seeing the doctor for his dry skin and got skin cream dispensed on the spot.
“Exposure can cause a range of skin elements,” Yesensky explained. “Rashes that bleed as well as skin dryness; We do our best to treat them.”
He explained that cleanliness is always an issue for the homeless. For most homeless at the shelter, being dirty was not from lack of effort. The restroom was in great demand as one person after another stripped to the waist and beyond, to bathe upright in an attempt to keep clean.
Timothy Lesure is a homeless musician who is an enthusiastic participant in Venice Beach’s Sunday drum circle. He’s the only patient I’ve seen in years who was upset that he had lost weight since he had last gotten on a scale. Lesure was effusive in his thanks for the medical care he got.
“They do an awesome job. The staff really cares about their patients,” he said.
Lesure was hopeful about his chances of moving off the streets since he had just qualified for Section 8 subsidized housing.
Jeff Cooke presented the infectious enthusiasm that is the hallmark of any good salesman. Originally from Baltimore, he has been in Los Angeles six years. He was very grateful for the homeless shelter.
“Without this place, I’d be sleeping in the bushes,” Cooke said.
He was thrilled that he had just started a job on Monday as a door-to-door salesman selling home improvement services, earning $10 an hour. After a fruitless Tuesday, he had generated three leads on Wednesday and was looking forward to resuming work the next morning. He was there because of a skin rash that had bled through his shirt. He was sure that the clinic would be able to help.
When I asked the staffers what they got out of it, Dr. Yesensky beamed.
“This is my favorite night of the week," Yesensky said. "This to me is what medicine is all about. I am really helping and healing.”
After speaking at length and seeing how much the healing arts moved him personally, I wondered if health care were in his DNA.
“My mom is a nurse,” Yesensky admitted. “She’s 60, but she still goes out to help patients every day.”
With health care continuing to divide our country politically, it’s important to recognize its essence as practiced by the Venice Family Clinic: People who are sick should be treated regardless of their economic circumstances. It is not only compassionate, it makes good economic sense because prevention forestalls more expensive treatment later.
The clinic at the homeless shelter reminded me of the simple imperative expressed in Matthew 10:8, “Heal the sick.”
It’s a lesson from scripture we shouldn’t forget.