Award-winning innovative program provides showers for the homeless

by Jill Forman

“Hygiene restores dignity and restores hope” says Deanna Handel, describing the shower component of the Ventura Health Care Agency’s program for the homeless, which is an “opportunity to extend the front door of the health care system out into the community. This is cutting edge work, a pilot program; not many communities deliver health care this way.”

Handel, manager of the program called Whole Person Care, speaks with passion about the its mission. And she is quick to point out that her outlook is shared by the entire staff. “They need to be welcoming and engaging; invite the clients in.”

Whole Person Care has been delivered by One Stop, weekly outreach events with multiple agencies offering assistance in areas such as housing, mental health services, medical referrals, drug and alcohol counseling, lunches, and so on. Many persons in the community have numerous service needs and barriers to getting those needs met, for example disability, mental health issues, or lack of transportation. By having services in one place, the hope is that they can connect with agencies and individuals to assist them. One Stop has many locations throughout the county. Showers are the latest component in offering more complete assistance.

Care Pods, the shower element, has been in place since December of 2017. They are made from container units which can be put on a truck and taken to locations. Made of steel, they are resistant to damage or vandalism. Fully self-contained units, they hook to city water with a hose. At this time, they stay in one location and are opened on a regular schedule. They each contain four showers, including an ADA-approved unit for the disabled. The company is local, founded by Vernon Alstot, a retired Ventura Fire Department executive who not only had experience with showers for fire personnel, but also brought relationships with local cities and organizations that were helpful to the Health Care Agency.

Relationships with communities and law enforcement have been key to the implementation of the Whole Person concept, engaging cities and law enforcement, getting everyone one board to find an appropriate location. There needs to be “careful conversations” to include everyone’s perspective. The Health Care Agency relies on city staff and law enforcement to be ambassadors to their communities. Law enforcement works with these individuals every day and knows the barriers they face to getting appropriate services.

The two locations currently with Care Pods are River Haven in Ventura and at the El Buen Pastor Church in Santa Paula. The Ventura site currently serves an average of 25 persons on a weekly schedule, though it has been as many as 41 in a day, and has provided 1700 showers total. The Santa Paula site serves 20-30 persons a week and has provided 1400 showers. HCA is in talks to expand to two more locations; there is funding for six units.

The program recently won a statewide award from the California Association of Public Hospitals – Safety Net Institute, a statewide advocacy body. The Quality Leaders Award recognized their outstanding effort to administer team-based, right place-right time care. A highly competitive award, it was “a real honor.”

Handel is proud of the program and has high praise for the staff and volunteers. The philosophy is centered on friendly workers: community health, professionals, medical staff and volunteers who give care that is compassionate and non-stigmatizing. “All staff really care about the clients. They are amazing.”

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