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Mobile outreach van provides vital access to care during pandemic

Places for People recently transformed a 15-passenger van into a behavioral health clinic on wheels, equipped with Wi-Fi, a sink, a generator, nursing equipment, and more.

The mobile outreach van was purchased and overhauled with funds from the St. Louis County CARES Healthcare Response Program. It provides Places for People staff with a new way to engage with individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Improving access to care is a priority at Places for People,” said Vice President of Clinical Services Barbara Zawier. “The van allows us to reach people who might otherwise not be served if they are expected to show up at an office with a specific appointment time.”

The van has been quite active during the frigid temperatures this month.

“It has been a lifesaver in two ways,” Intake Diagnostician Tina Busch said. “One, it allows us in true emergency situations to see people. Two, it allows us to transport people.”

Since COVID-19 protocols went into effect last March, Places for People staff members have not been able to transport individuals in personal vehicles as a safety precaution for both parties. The size of the van allows a person to sit in the back with appropriate distance from the staff member. “It makes outreach in a COVID atmosphere easier,” Busch said.

Kevin Hogan, a peer specialist on the Outreach Team, said he has been able to use the van to support an unhoused individual who “didn’t know where he was going to go.” By using the van, Places for People’s Outreach team was able to take the individual and his possessions to a hotel. They also helped him get treated for frostbite.

He has since started the enrollment process for services at Places for People. He had his psychiatric evaluation, and now has a long-term housing plan in place. “That’s been a total team effort,” Hogan said.

When an encampment closed recently, Places for People Outreach staff used the van to transport unhoused individuals and their belongings to a hotel for temporary shelter. Without the van, that might not have been possible.

“I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when you’re homeless, you don’t want to lose all of your things,” Busch said.

The van will also be used for in-person nursing assessments (it is equipped to perform full metabolic screenings), face-to-face visits, community outreach, and as a transportation option for an upcoming COVID-19 vaccine clinic by St. Louis Pharmacy at Places for People.

In addition, the van will allow for more flexible access to care in the early stages of services. Having a fully-equipped mobile option allows Places for People staff to meet people where they are. The van’s Wi-Fi capability will allow individuals to have a telehealth appointment through a tablet with a psychiatrist or prescriber from the van.

It also provides shelter from the elements while conducting initial assessments. Rather than doing paperwork in the cold, individuals can fill out forms and answer questions in the warmth and comfort of the van. The van has a generator that allows it to maintain heat without having to keep the engine running.

“It’s so much better than standing outside around a barrel” to fill out paperwork, Hogan said.

This winter, the Outreach staff has also used the van to distribute snacks and pocket food, coats, gloves, blankets, and other winter wear.

“Outreach is a matter of building relationships,” Busch explained. Being able to provide necessities like winter wear can help build rapport and trust in the services offered by Places for People.

In January, a man who refused to go to the hospital in an ambulance for needed psychiatric care agreed to go in the van with Busch.

Busch said, “There’s 1,000 uses for this van.”