In the mid-eighties when homelessness was growing at alarming rates, our community quickly realized that the many homeless persons were in desperate need of health services. Early studies showed that persons who were homeless experienced much higher rates of chronic and acute illnesses when compared to the general population. Sick persons were living on the streets and in turn living on the streets was making homeless persons even sicker. Sisters Mary Kathleen and Pat Worley, along with Charlotte Hazas and other staff at St. John Day Center were keenly aware of the link impact of homelessness on the health of those using the day center.
A couple of volunteer dentists, William Penny and Bill Weutcher started providing rudimentary dental care to patients in a small closet on the east side of the Center soon after it opened. Then, in September 1986, five months after St. John Center opened, Sr. Kathleen worked with others to expand the dental services to include a small health room to address, as best as possible, the health needs of homeless persons. Volunteer nurses from Spalding and nurses from various agencies in the community took turns staffing the small health room. The health room, and later the clinic, quickly became, as Charlotte Hazas put it, the medicine chest of the homeless. One of the primary services rendered in the health room was the provision of a pail to soak one’s feet. This small service was greatly appreciated by the homeless who spent much of their days walking and standing.
Late in 1986 a collaborative effort between the St. John Center, Family Health Centers, Seven Counties Services, Coalition for the Homeless, City and County Governments resulted in the award of a federal Health Care for the Homeless Grant. A federal Health Care for the Homeless grant, written by Bill Wager, now CEO of FHC, was awarded in 1987. The clothing closet at the St. John Center was renovated to create two exam rooms, small office, medical record and front office area operated by Family Health Centers (FHC). Under the direction of Cindy Bolton, APRN the newly refurbished St. John Clinic began seeing patients on March 14th of 1987. Within the first few days, noted a Courier Journal article (3-17-88), more than a hundred persons had used the clinic’s services.
Ten years later, in 1997, the increasing number of homeless persons led Sr. Kathleen to initiate an effort to expand the clinic by relocating it to the nearby St. John Rectory. The St. John Rectory had recently been donated to FHC to house FHC’s three-member Homeless Outreach Team and the Health Care for the Homeless Director. Bart Irwin, the director of FHC’s Health Care for the Homeless Project began to seek funds to construct an addition to the St. John Rectory to house to relocate the clinic. With help from Sue Speed and the Coalition for the Homeless, a combination of private foundation funds and contributions from local hospitals, the City, County, State and Coalition for the Homeless allowed for the construction and furnishing of what became the Phoenix Health Center. In late February 2000 the Phoenix Health Center opened to provide primary care services, volunteer dental services, and outreach to the homeless residing in Louisville.
What began in a small closet at St. John has grown into the Phoenix Health Center now with a staff of forty-six persons providing services to the homeless. Under the leadership of Andy Patterson and additional expansion of the old St. John Rectory, the Phoenix Health Center has evolved to offer primary health care, dental, pharmacy services, mental health, outreach to homeless residing on the streets and in camps, application assistance for benefits of all kinds, and housing assistance. St. John Center for Homeless Men and FHC’s Phoenix Health Center continue to work together to provide a wide range of services to homeless persons in Louisville Metro.
Bart Irwin is the Chief Administrative Officer of Family Health Centers, Inc. and has a long history with St. John Center and serving the health care needs of people experiencing homelessness.