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Duffy Health Center: Meeting the Most Basic Needs during COVID-19

Duffy Health Center: Meeting the Most Basic Needs during COVID-19

Today’s post comes from Christine Wiseman of Duffy Health Center in Hyannis, MA


For years, Duffy Health Center has conducted a shower program as part of our integrated model of care. We offer this service for individuals experiencing homelessness and without access to the utilities needed for hygiene, a key factor in overall health. When COVID-19 arrived on Cape Cod, a small peninsula off the southeast coast of Massachusetts, the population we serve became more vulnerable than ever. As a preventive measure, the local shelter de-populated, increasing the number of individuals experiencing street homelessness in the hub of Hyannis from 25 to 60. As everyone around the country was being told to maintain hygiene to stop the spread of COVID-19, it was an unfortunate and harsh reality that some of our neighbors were unable to bathe or change their clothing for weeks due to the closure of shower and hygiene programs that are normally available.

Duffy Health Center staff and leadership knew that action was needed – our mission is to care for these exact individuals. A trailer consisting of two units, each with a toilet, sink and shower, was delivered to Duffy Health Center by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), and on the morning of Wednesday April 22, 2020, Duffy opened a shower program for people in the community who were without regular access to running water and clean clothing.

Without hesitation, the Cape Cod community rallied around this opportunity to provide basic needs to those who have gone without for many weeks. It was incredible to witness. Partners from the Barnstable County Department of Human Services were engaged and supportive as Duffy leaders spearheaded the community collaboration and programming in a matter of days. Our colleagues from the Barnstable Police Department were present to provide support, engage with community members, and ensure safety. Several local organizations provided funding for items and others did outreach during the program times.

The program quickly transformed from a simple hygiene exercise to a means of meaningful engagement during a time when our population was feeling more isolated than ever. The graphic to the right shows statistics from April 2020 to September 2020. More important than the numbers, though, is the fact that individuals received connection and non-judgmental support during this extremely challenging time. One gentleman told the Duffy staff, “I have never run into a group of individuals who are as kind and compassionate as you are.”

Individuals engaged with the Shower Program staff to:
* obtain masks, hand sanitizer, toiletries and other necessities;
* seek assistance in accessing detox as a step toward recovery;
* receive guidance on accessing their stimulus checks;
* get support with housing resources and shelter placements.

The excerpt below is from a Duffy Case Manager who manned the showers for months on end:

Wednesday was a very average day at the showers. When I got to Duffy a half hour before the showers opened, there were already three people waiting. One person settled in his car where he spends his days and nights, and a young couple who are sleeping in the woods. By the time I came out to set up, another person had joined them, and within minutes a fifth person drove up in his ramshackle old truck.

Our shower team set up under the tent, pulling out the shower bags we hand out to each patient: towel, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo and soap. When available, we have food to share. We always have Narcan to give to our patients, telling them that even if they don’t need it, please keep it on hand for other people. The opiate crisis is still an issue on the Cape, while we fight COVID.

The cleaning staff showed up at nine and gave the two showers in the trailer a good first go-through. They clean and decontaminate the showers thoroughly between each shower, then the next person gets their 20 minutes.

The gentleman in the truck had to get to his job and although we work on a first-come, first-serve basis, the folks waiting were kind enough to let him go first. He took a quick splash and was off to work.

The showers are generally in constant use throughout the 3 hours we run the program Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. But the ability to get clean is only a part of what we have to offer. Our two Recovery Support Navigators (RSN) are in constant motion, talking to patients about drug and alcohol use, working to get anyone who wants to into detox programs. I have watched as they negotiate with patients, negotiate with detox facilities and set up transportation for our patients to have their next chance at sobriety. After folks return from detox, our RSNs help our patients get into sober homes or other places that help them protect their sobriety safely.

They are also handing out phones we received as part of a grant program: flip-phones with 3 months service so we can keep in contact with them as they navigate their lives. This has been a literal lifeline for folks living out in the woods or who are in active addiction. There is always a way to get help.

The Duffy van is our office, packed with the socks, underwear, and masks (made for us by wonderful volunteers). We sit there and do our work during quieter times, continuing our outreach to other people whose health we support.

About half the people that show up to the shower program have case management needs. I have helped folks apply for unemployment; make appointments at the RMV; told them about food availability; assisted patients in getting their medical needs cared for by Duffy; given information about housing options; gotten people needed cab rides; gotten bandages and antibiotic cream; provided lots of socks, underwear, masks and t-shirts; and have been a listening ear… and that’s just in the last two days.

So Wednesday was an average day – eleven people showered and we worked with at least 6 more people, touching base with those who stop by because they know we are there to help.

We are working with people who are living in their cars; men and women in tents in the woods. We have folks in their 60s and see those who are just nineteen. The shower program has brought out people we hadn’t worked with closely before, and many have told me how thankful they are there for this program. Every day I hear people say how wonderful Duffy is, how they have been supported by us. I always tell them it is our job – but what they say touches my heart. Every single day.

Duffy Health Center will be using funds allocated from the American Rescue Plan Act to purchase a mobile shower unit so that we may continue this important, engaging program in the future.

The mission of Duffy Health Center is to provide equitable, integrated primary health care and support services to persons who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness on Cape Cod, and to improve the quality of life for vulnerable and marginalized populations through community collaborations, leadership, and advocacy.


Click here to learn more about Duffy Health Center