Alum talks health care access for the homeless

By GIULIANA LEOTTA | March 29, 2018

Tyler Cornell, a nurse practitioner at Health Care for the Homeless, discussed the impact of homelessness on a person’s health and access to health resources. Health Care for the Homeless is a federally-qualified health center in Baltimore.

The event, which took place on Tuesday, was hosted by the Hopkins chapter of Habitat for Humanity. 

Cornell first discussed her journey from being a pre-medical student to eventually earning her Masters of Science in Nursing and Public Health. She first realized that she was not motivated by research during her undergraduate work in a student health center.

“I don’t want to work in a lab, I want to work with people,” she said.

She spent three and a half years in Zambia after her undergraduate years and became interested in Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian organization. 

Upon returning to the U.S., she tried to get a job as a public health professional through Doctors Without Borders but was denied initially because they were looking for nurses, who had technical skills.

“I really wanted to help people. I really wanted to be one-on-one with the patients,” Cornell said.

At Hopkins, Cornell earned a dual Masters degree. This led her to become a primary care provider at Health Care for the Homeless three years ago. She explained why she enjoys her work. 

“I see patients. I love my job: how people have such trust in me, they share the most intimate things, [be it] their physical health or their emotional health or social circumstances,” she said. 

Health Care for the Homeless serves individuals that have unstable housing arrangements, including the homeless and those with temporary housing. The facility is comprised of five divisions that all have distinct roles: Medical Care, Convalescent Care, Dental Care, Psychiatric Care, and Behavioral Health and Addiction Services.

Cornell discussed her obligation to “meet patients where they are.” 

“If the patient has so much instability that they can’t even find the pharmacy to pick up the medicine or the idea of following up to that [diagnostic] test is low on their priority list, then I’m not meeting their needs,” she said. 

A student in the audience asked Cornell about how many people the facility sees a year.

Cornell said that the facility has 15,000 individual patients and about 25,000 patient visits a year. 

“We have patients who we see once, and then we never see them again,” she said. “But then, we have patients who come in once a month. And, an individual could be [receiving care from] all different parts of the clinic.” 

Another student asked about the efficacy of Narcan and other emergency medications that are prescribed to treat opioid and narcotic overdoses.

“The idea with Narcan is that we write a prescription,” she said. “We’re giving someone medicine because we know they have an opioid abuse disorder, so they should also be carrying a pen in their pocket because likely they’re in this community... there should be one Narcan for every eight people in a community to prevent overdoses.”

Cornell also believes that the University should support the homeless and unstable populations in Baltimore. 

“The University has an obligation to create citizens of the world,” she said. 

Junior Sabrina Mackey-Alfonso, a board member for Habitat for Humanity and the main organizer of the event, enjoyed hearing Cornell’s talk. She explained why she and Habitat invited Cornell to speak.

“We know that having a home can impact your health,” she said. “The instability of housing can affect your mental state, your health and physical outcomes. We wanted to bring in this speaker who had seen all of that.” 

Mackey-Alfonso also said that the talk was very important in that it solidified the meaning and impact of Habitat’s actions.

“It made me think about how the work we’re doing is even more important,” she said.

Habitat in Baltimore, as part of the larger branch, Habitat of the Chesapeake, works on remodeling homes in the City to make them more livable so they can be viable options for people who struggle with homelessness and instability. There is a major need for this sort of work, according to Mackey-Alfonso.

“We don’t have a lot of affordable housing, and the housing we do is dilapidated. It’s abandoned,” she said. “That’s where people live: in these unsafe homes, and they can’t afford to be safe because it’s way too expensive.” 

Fellow Habitat member junior Zeke Ramos touched on his experience in a different student group, Health Leads, with undocumented immigrants and their healthcare. He also praised Healthcare for the Homeless for serving and working with the undocumented population.

“There is a huge community in the Dundalk area of immigrants that are kind of just hiding from the system and trying to function,” he said. “The work [Healthcare for the Homeless] does is really amazing.” 

Ramos further commended Cornell for her work and her presentation.

“The way she spoke about [caring for the homeless] just makes you want to jump in and do as much with it as you can as well,” he said.

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