“An Epidemic Within a Pandemic:” Nurse Talks About Fighting Homelessness Amid COVID-19
ST. CLOUD – The COVID-19 pandemic has added a new layer of complexity to the work of medical professionals tasked with caring for people experiencing homelessness in the St. Cloud area.
Kristi Bryant is an Outreach Nurse for CentraCare’s Coordinated Care Clinic, a referral-only primary care clinic located on the north side of St. Cloud. The clinic’s medical offices are closed due to COVID-19, but Bryant remains busy caring for patients out in the community – many of whom are without dependable housing.
“It’s harder to get people the care that they need right now because a lot of the clinics are shut down,” she said. “A lot of treatment centers aren’t accepting patients at this time. There are a lot more mental health calls than you would see without the pandemic. Things are kind of at a standstill, and that gets frustrating for our patients.”
The Coordinated Care Clinic treats individuals dealing with a wide variety of complicated medical, mental health and social needs. Many deal with chemical dependency issues. Others have recently been released from jail or prison. Bryant typically has around 25 people on her caseload, but that number changes frequently.
“I get new patients almost daily,” said Bryant. “I spend a lot of time out at Place of Hope. I would say about 90 percent of my job is relationship-building and gaining trust with these people so that I can help them be successful and show them a path to a healthier life. You build that trust, and then they will open up to you.”
Bryant is also a member of St. Cloud’s homelessness community action team, which includes representatives from Stearns County and the St. Cloud Police Department. The group identifies individuals frequently arrested or treated in the St. Cloud Hospital Emergency Room and figures out how to help them.
“We’ll get a notification if one of our patients in in the ER,” Bryant said. “If that’s the case, I’m able to go over there and talk to them and possibly intercept a crisis. It’s really about meeting people where they’re at, holding their hand and listening to their stories, and helping them get a better handle on what they want in their life.”
The wealth of experience Bryant has amassed in less than a year with the Coordinated Care Clinic has been helpful as she tackles a new job duty. Bryant and her colleague, community paramedic Carmen Carlson, are official COVID-19 testers for St. Cloud’s homeless population. Bryant and Carlson collaborate with public health nurses to identify COVID-positive patients and ensure they receive proper follow-up care.
“I’m fighting an epidemic within a pandemic,” said Bryant. “We have to stay connected and remind them that we haven’t abandoned them. It’s very important, because a lot of times, these people have been let down by systems. I like to stay connected to let them know I’m not going to let them down or abandon them, even if it’s hard right now.”
Bryant says the pandemic has made it somewhat easier to track down certain patients; as the virus’ spread continues, local organizations are working to find lodging for individuals and families experiencing homelessness.
“I can go to one hotel and find six of my people,” Bryant said. “If they were sleeping under a bridge, that would be difficult to track. Now that the majority of them are in one place, it’s a bit easier.”
“Sometimes, when I lose people and I can’t find them, I'll go drive around,” she added. “I’ll go to places where I know the homeless population hangs out. Sometimes I’m successful in finding them. Sometimes I’m not."
Bryant’s patients stay on her caseload for an indefinite length of time. Success, she says, can be going from seeing patients 3-4 times per week to once a month.
“That’s when it’s down to maintenance, and just making sure they’re doing okay,” she explained. “The goal is to transition them into regular family medical care, stable housing, and employment, if possible. And to do this work, I have to take my thoughts, my morals and my personal values out of the picture. Once they have a definition of a successful life, then I feel like I’ve done my job.”