For 10 years they have ventured out to hillsides, creek shores, and abandoned buildings to find the homeless in the Wheeling area to offer medical assistance, but thanks to a generous recent donation, Dr. William Mercer and Crystal Bauer now can treat those in need at the Winter Freeze Shelter at Youth Services System.
A $20,000 gift from an anonymous donor allowed for the purchase of several pieces of medical equipment that have been utilized this winter for treatments concerning everything from the common cold to injuries in need of sutures.
“We were able to add a state-of-the-art medical exam room, and it is nicer than a lot of what’s inside many doctors’ offices right now, and it allows us to see people who are not accustomed to seeking medical care,” said Bauer, an experienced nurse who has worked in emergency rooms and in hospice care during her career. “It has allowed us to take those services to where they are at this time of year, and to offer those services in a professional environment.
“For several years, a group of us have gone to them wherever they may be seeking shelter outside, and we have been offering med checks, but this development will take those efforts even further,” she said. “Many people may not realize it, but the need is real, and while it is unfortunate that these services are needed, it’s something that is growing, and that is why the program has taken off tremendously. When we started performing the med checks, we had to do them in our office, but now we have the exam room, and that’s a wonderful addition.”
Mercer reacted to that need even before the Winter Freeze Shelter was founded in 2009, and that was because of what he witnessed during his days practicing medicine in the Friendly City. During the last decade, he and others have ventured out to homeless camps, interstate bridges, and facilities that offer assistance to those in need.
These days, though, Mercer, Bauer, Dr. Tom Wack, and other volunteers have the ability to offer care in a sheltered environment instead of at unsanitary locations.
“Now we have an exam table, several pieces of equipment including an EKG machine, and we’re also able to perform some minor procedures,” Dr. Mercer explained. “It’s more private, and now that we have it, we are seeing more residents who want to come to be examined.
“Most of them are very appreciative, and many of the residents have come to know us because we’ve been doing this for quite a while, just not with such a professional atmosphere,” he said. “Our effort also includes Dr. Wack, and we also have about 30 volunteers, so it’s really come together very nicely.”
Mercer referred to Bauer as, “…the glue that keeps the effort all together and moving forward,” and it has been she who has discovered many areas in which homeless individuals reside when outdoor temperatures threaten exposure.
“During the winter months we know that most of the homeless in this area do seek shelter to get out of the elements. The only time we have gone out to find them is when we suspect there are folks who are still out there. They know that we care, and they know that we are genuine when we say that we are going to do everything we can to help them” Bauer said. “After winter, though, we will go out again to make visits, and the fact that we go to their environment is something that they appreciate.
“They know why we are there, and they have come to depend on those visits, too, and we also visit the local agencies that help the homeless, too,” she explained. “Plus, during the summer months, we do take some food with us to distribute to them because they might not have had the chance to go to one of those facilities for something to eat. If we can get them used to that, ultimately we hope to get them connected to primary care. One of the biggest problems is that they are not invested in their health for one reason or another, and they are met with stereotypes and stigmas that are accompanied by attitudes.”
Wack joined the team soon after his retirement in 2015, and his volunteer service has opened his eyes and rid his mind of the impressions he garnered prior to joining the YSS crew.
“I had been looking for some way to continue to provide what experience I had to the community, and I was fortunate enough to find the opportunity to work with Dr. Mercer and with Crystal, and now I have a good idea about what they have been doing,” he said. “What we are trying to provide is a whole spectrum of care, and it’s provided me with a very good insight as far as what takes place in the homeless community.
“I think we have some sort of stereotype about the homeless and why they insist on living outside of society, but we are all just a few steps away from being in the exact same situation as they are. Illness, job loss, there are many things that can force a person to the streets,” Wack said. “These people are just like all of us, really, and they need medical care the same ways we do, and I am very happy to be able to help make it available to them.”
Wack also has learned about the presence of addiction and mental illness among those without homes.
“There are times when someone is suffering from mental illness, and they do not realize it because they are surviving the only ways they know how,” Wack said. “Those addicted to drugs, of course, have their issues, too, and they do not know what options they have, and I have been very impressed with the Wheeling community in terms of the amount of giving by people in the area. And I don’t think a lot of people know about the amount of volunteer work that takes place, and that’s because many of those are not recognized and don’t really want to be.
“It’s a very large support system that we have here, and I am very honored to be a part of it,” he added. “The people of Wheeling are very good to the populace in many, many ways.”
(Cover photo by Steve Novotney; additional photos provided by Crystal Bauer)