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Nurses hit the streets

Published: Sat, February 16, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



YOUNGSTOWN -- They are godsends to the city's homeless, the Florence Nightingales of its shelters, dispensing doses of caring along with aspirins and blood pressure tests and medical assessments.

Michele Evans and Kay Brown, Youngstown Health Department public health nurses, scrounge clothing and blankets and diapers and places to stay for their clients -- things they didn't learn how to do in nursing school.

They get sore muscles while loading furniture into trucks -- sometimes they draft family, friends and co-workers and shelter residents to help -- and then moving it into an apartment they've arranged for a family with no place to stay.

"What good is a place to stay with no furniture?" they reason.

They take their special brand of nursing under the city's bridges, to vacant buildings and the rescue mission and St. Vincent dePaul Society and other places that the homeless and poor turn to for shelter, food and clothing.

Both registered nurses, Evans and Brown are on a mission.

"The point," Evans said, "is trying to help people rebuild their lives."

Program sponsors: Evans' position, created in 1999, is funded by HUD's Homeless Care and Outreach program. Under HUD, homeless is defined as someone who lives in an emergency shelter or is staying on the street or in vacant buildings.

Brown's specific target group is the near-homeless, people who have housing but are on the verge of being evicted. Her position is funded by the Community Development Agency's Homeless Program.

"We try to find out what their options are," Evans said. "The job is more social services in this instance, dealing with issues such as housing and jobs.

"Probably 90 percent of what we do is not part of the official job description. But to us, it's if we don't do it, who will? We make it happen."

Health Commissioner Neil Altman "will tell you we are crazy," she added.

"I can tell you that I am exceptionally proud of both of the nurses. They are very giving, dedicated human beings," the health commissioner said. "I'm just happy we are one of the few health districts in the state who actually minister to the homeless population."

The jobs: The nurses try to offer food, clothing and shelter first. People can't think about their medical needs when they don't know where they are going to sleep, they said.

"If we feel overwhelmed by the job, we pull back. All you can do is what you can do. It's taken me three years to learn I can't fix everything. We just give 100 percent and no regrets," Evans said.

Brown said the most frustrating thing about the job is getting people help, and then seeing them end up back on the street. Also, she said, things have to be taken at face value, a tenet that not too long ago was reinforced.

A man who had been shot twice in the leg had no money and no place to go after leaving the hospital and ended up at the Mahoning County Rescue Mission. He told people he wouldn't be broke for long because he had written two of Aretha Franklin's biggest hits and had a royalty check coming.

"I said to myself, 'Oh sure,'" Evans said.

It turned out he was telling the truth, and about three weeks later, a royalty check for $11,000 arrived.

The nurses have concluded that Youngstown is a crossroads where a lot of people from all over seem to end up, often with no place to turn.

Biographical: In fact, neither Brown nor Evans are Youngstown-area natives.

Born in England and reared in Canada, Brown married an American salesman and spent 15 years on the road, living in 22 states.

In 1980, they were in Youngstown when her husband, Edward, became ill and died in Southside Hospital. Ironically the former Southside building is where the health department offices are now located.

"I liked the people here, so I stayed and enrolled in the Youngstown State University nursing program and got an associate's degree in 1984 and a bachelor's degree in nursing in 1992.

Brown remained in Youngstown but commuted to University Hospitals in Cleveland, where she worked in its surgical intensive care unit until she developed a severe latex allergy and could no longer do direct patient care. She came to the city health department in September 2000.

"I had been offered the job earlier but refused. From the outside looking in, it was kind of intimidating," she said. "Now, I'm so glad I took the job. You never know from one day to the next what is going to happen. You feel like you are doing something constructive ... making a difference with people."

Evans, too, followed her husband to Youngstown.

She met Brian Evans, originally from Youngstown, when they were firearms training partners during a police course required for employment at the Ohio Corrections Medical Center in Columbus. They later married and moved to Youngstown. They have three children -- Adam, Brady and Madison -- and Brian works for the Ohio Bureau of Corrections.

When Evans talks with the homeless, she knows from personal knowledge about being poor and alone. A Cincinnati native, she left home when she was 16 and roomed by herself above the restaurant where she worked. She said the juvenile authorities knew about her, but left her alone as long as she stayed out of trouble.

Her behavior was not a problem, and Evans continued to go to high school, where she was an "A" student and president of the student council.

After high school, she lived in the projects of Columbus, "because the rent was about $13 a month," and went to Hocking Technical College in Nelsonville.

She said she became a practical nurse first so she could graduate in the shortest amount of time and start making a living. Then, the plan was to go back to school and earn an associate's degree and become a registered nurse, which she did. She worked for the Ohio Corrections Medical Center in Columbus before coming to Youngstown.

"I share that story to show people it can be done ... that they don't have to stay down," Evans said.


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