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Health, Housing, and Public Services

The Suitcase Clinic - A Friend of the Homeless
by Lynda Carson ( lyndacarson [at] excite.com )
Friday Jul 18th, 2003 1:24 AM
Some times we can all get by with a little help from our friends...
The Suitcase Clinic -- A Friend of the Homeless

By Lynda Carson July 17, 2003

Berkeley's Suitcase Clinic was founded by undergraduate students from the UCB-UCSF Joint Medical Program and the UCB School of Public Health in 1989, and according to it's mission statement it exists to promote the health and overall well-being of homeless and low-income individuals. Most of their donations come from fund raising, grant writing, and the City of Berkeley helps out with around $4000 annualy to keep their legal clinic operating.

Some of the much needed services being freely offered to the homeless are urgent care medical services, social services, dental services, chiropractic care, optometric services and free eyeglasses, accupuncture, veterinary services, food supplies, haircutting, foot washing and massage, legal services, clothing and vouchers for motels/hotels.

It's that little oasis of a crossroads where the young students of Cal-Berkeley and the local homeless population have a chance to spend an evening together on a weekly basis, and for a brief moment the cultural barriers of American life seem to momentarily disappear. This clinic helps to serve all of those involved no matter which side of the human spectrum they may be coming from.

Rich or poor, young, old, or middle aged, the clinic itself serves the needs of those being served as well as those offering their volunteer services as a means to share their humanity with one another.

For the weary eyed road traveler coming in from out of state or out of mind, nothing can compensate the homeless wandering unfortunates who may have lost all of their possessions, jobs, friends or loved ones while believing that they really have reached the end of the road.

A lonely road that finally leads them directly to the sevices of the Suitcase Clinic in Berkeley for a Monday or Tuesday night if they happen to enjoy playing basketball, or want to watch tv, need a chiropractor, or are up to having a foot massage and footwash, haircut, need a legal clinic, or the services of an optometrist. Any, or all of the above and other services are provided at no cost to the clients that show up at the various clinics.

Affectionately known as "The Clinic" by it's student volunteers and the homeless who spend an evening together on a weekly basis to interact with one another, is a happening all unto itself as a case-working model that is quickly spreading to other university towns across the nation.

So many of you are out there who can really grasp what it's like to reside at a location without running water, electricity, environmental controls, or a place to dump a load on a cold lonely night while you stare up at the stars until your mind wanders off into a restless slumber.

Others know what it's like to be lonely on a cold winter night sitting alone in your truck or car all night long listening to the pitter patter of the rain drops hitting the roof above till dawn and beyond. That is of course, if you are lucky enough to even have a vehicle to protect you from the storm or other hazards of life lurking about on a dark cold lonely night.

You are or have been known as part the homeless collective, and you know what the challenges are that you face on a daily basis in order to survive or maintain some semblance of dignity and humanity.

You may be down on your luck, and you may be down to your last quarter as your mind maps out a survival routine for the day to get you from here till tomorrow without landing at Santa Rita Jail for some trumped up charge meant to enrich the fatcats feeding off of the criminal un-justice system.

But, you made it through for another week, and your ready to enter this oasis of compassion to join the human race for that magical evening to fulfill your human needs so that you can keep on trucking just a little bit longer. Maybe for just another week, until the clinic doors open up again for you brothers and sisters, as you are lovingly embraced by the Suitcase Clinic.

The Tuesday Night General Clinic

Julia Wildwood an attractive homeless woman from Seatle who needs glasses has good vision, but, needs reading glasses, and showed up for an evening at the clinic on July 15, 2003. Julia was pleasantly surprised that her input for this story was requested and offered her consent the moment she heard that it was for Street Spirit. I love that paper, Julia said, as she quietly sat at a table taking an eye exam being offered for free by one of the volunteers in the general clinic at the First Presbyterian Church located at 2407 Dana Street, in Berkeley.

Wearing a lovely purple top with a tan colored vest and black pants, Julia looked stylish in her own way as she described how the clinic has been helping her out as of late. Not only has Julia sought the optometric services the clinic offers, but, attorney Osha Neumann has been her guardian angel lately to defend her from the Berkeley cops who have arrested her for sleeping upon the steps of Berkeley City Hall.

I landed at Santa Rita for sleeping outside, but, was never charged, said Julia. The Berkeley cops arrest people and lock them up as punishment without ever charging them for an offense, and it appears to be a big racket to make alot of money for all of those involved in the criminalization of the poor, said Julia.

I spent 30 hours at Santa Rita for sleeping on the steps of City Hall, said Julia in exasperation, and it was all for nothing, and just aint fair. The Suitcase Clinic is a safe haven for me to go to for services that I no longer can afford, said Julia.

Thanks to the clinic, Osha Neumann joined me in court to defend myself after I landed in Santa Rita Jail from the sleeping offense, said Julia, and when we went to court for the hearing it became apparent that the cop who arrested me never bothered to show up to press for charges or for a prosecution. This all smacks of a hustle on the poor, and people like me get locked up for no good reason other than to provide the corrupt system with fresh new victims, said Julia.

While being tested for the eye exam by a woman I will call Anon because she wants to remain anonymous, Julia states that she last had an eye exam back in Seatle during 1991 while her job was to work with homeless people in that part of the country. I am long over due for an eye exam, said Julia.

Julia made it through the eye exam and lottery process to get some new eyeglasses, and is luckier than the fellow I observed who tried to sneak his way through the process. He was told to come back and try it again next week, and being a gentle natured type of guy he wandered off without a fuss to another section of the clinic before heading back out upon the streets.

Meanwhile, Julia was given a time and date for an appointment at the University Eye Center located on the Berkeley Campus in Minor Hall, and she left with some documentation from the Suitcase Clinic plus a map and appointment schedule to bring along with her to the University Eye Center.

According to Toph Peabody a volunteer coordinator at the clinic; the clinic pays for the glasses and the business donates the time for the eye examinations, Toph said. The lenses for the glasses are the most expensive item the clinic has to deal with during it's annual budget, said Toph.

Toph Peabody had that look of serenity and sure footedness about him as he kept a keen eye on the proceedings at the clinic, while he gracefully helped the volunteers to maintain a process that allowed the clinic to function at a smooth operating level. If a crisis arose while I was there to observe the clinic in motion, I certainly could not spot it, and it all seemed so casual.

After four years at the clinic, Toph Peabody has the experience to keep the clinic running smoothly without making it look like he was over exerting himself or acting like a big shot to control every movement of the volunteers or clients. A whisper here and a whisper there among his staff/volunteers, and people were moving about in a friendly manner to where they were needed to offer the services being sought by the homeless.

According to Toph, on any given Tuesday evening at the general clinic, the 2 female chiropractors may see at least 12-13 clients a night, the hair stylists may have 10-15 clients a night, the legal clinic see's at least 3-10 clients per night, and at least 4 clients were with the optometrist's during my brief visit with them if that's any indication of normalcy at the clinic.

Lester of Lousiana, is a homeless fellow that has been a client at the general clinic for the past 13 years and states that everyone should have a home to live in. Lester was having a footwash when I met him at the clinic, and he says that out of all the services they offer at the clinic that this is his favorite. To me this is a social visit to see my friends and a chance to have a good foot massage at the same time, Lester said.

On average, theres around 4-6 foot washers per night at the clinic to serve around 16 clients each evening, and it takes around 10 minutes to offer someone a good foot wash and massage says, Jenifer Stitchman of Washington State.

Being one out of 5 footwashers in motion this evening to gently rub the kinks out of peoples tired and tender feet, Jenifer stated that we do this out of our love for humanity. I am a volunteer here 3-4 nights a month, and it's our way to express our love of humanity in a safe way while interacting with others that may be feeling abused by a society that treats them like criminals just because they are poor or homeless, said Jenifer.

An ancient tradition, footwashing was also popular among the followers of Christ as a means to express their love of humanity and fellow human beings back during the so-called biblical times in the far east and elsewhere.

According to Toph, the staff and volunteers get their training from the Health and Medical Sciences Department at the university before joining the Suitcase Clinic. I counted at least 23 volunteers and staff at the debriefing meeting after the clinic closed down for the evening on July 15, 2003, and they all sat in a circle to discuss what they had experienced that evening in the clinic. In addition, it looked like at least nearly 50-70 clients that showed up earlier for the clinic services and this was a quiet evening compared to other nights, said Toph.

Theres plenty of volunteers said Toph, and the students and church donate everything here that you see to make this all happen. The 13 year old clinic is a model used in other university towns and is spreading across the nation to break the barriers that have criminalized the poor and homeless, said Toph. Most of the student volunteers have not been homeless, but, this does not mean that we cannot relate to the social and medical needs of the homeless community, said Toph.

The medical students of Cal-Berkeley years ago realized the need to help offer services to the poor, and with the support of U.C. professor Allen Steinbach, they first opened their doors to the poor back in 1989. We now proudly have attorney Tirien Steinbach from the East Bay Community Law Center to help run the Legal Clinic who is the daughter of Allen Steinbach, Toph says, and with Osha Neumann and Tirien Steinbach to run the legal clinic, we have been able to help out many homeless people having legal problems.

According to Toph, the clinic is a case-working model which appeals to student learning to treat the whole person rather than just a single illness. The clinic is also a social experience with boundaries, said Toph, and it's a way for everyone to be a part of something that breaks down all class and cultural barriers while serving the needs of the community at large.

The Suitcase Clinic is presently divided up into 3 different locations. The General Clinic, the Womens Clinic, and the Youth Clinic, with each having similiar mission goals to reach out to the various members of the community.

The Monday Night Womens Clinic

Jen Troia of Maryland works with the Eastbay Community Law Center and as a volunteer helps to operate the Suitcase Legal Clinic at the Dwight Womens Shelter on Monday evenings. With 2 advocates and one attorney they serve at least 4 to 8 women per evening at the Womens Shelter. Having two years of law school already behind her, part of her internship is being accomplished by working with the clinic for 2 hours per week on a weekly basis plus a followup on the cases she works on, said Jen.

I love this job because I feel like I'm helping people, and someday I would like to do civil rights work, said Jen Troia.

Being an extension of the General Clinic, the Womens Clinic operates on Monday nights from 7:30 - 9:30 p.m., in Berkeley at the Dwight Womens Shelter as a working model with the same mission and goals as the Suitcase General Clinic.

The Monday Night Youth Clinic

The Youth Clinic run by Ryan Houk is also known by some as the Punk Clinic and is open from 6-9 p.m., on Monday evenings at St. Marks Church in Berkeley. It may seem to be loud and chaotic to the casual observer listening to the music and video games blasting away, but, behind the scenes it is actualy very well organized with a doctor in one corner, an accupuncturist occupying a different corner and in yet another corner of the room a veterinarian has set up shop to help out those that bring in their pets from off of the streets. The youth help out to cook the food for that evenings dinner, help to do the foot washing and even produce their own magazine known as The Zine. It took alot of work to gain the trust of the youth, Toph said.

SHARE-Searching How to Achieve Respect & Empowerment

Share is basically a focus group of people who get together at the General Clinic on Tuesday evenings from 7:30-9 p.m., to brainstorm ideas and the issues of the day faced by the clinic, it's volunteers and clients. Some believe that SHARE is the heart and soul of the Suitcase Clinic. The idea for the legal clinic came out of SHARE when it became obvious to the volunteers that homeless people have many legal problems so-called normal public defenders do not have the time or funding to resolve. Many other great ideas for the clinic came out of SHARE, and they wish to stay focused on civil rights issues.

At the end of each clinic session Toph, Jen, or Ryan with the other volunteers sit down for a final 15 minute debreifing before heading home, as a means to check in for the evening with one another and to discuss security issues or any other issues that may arise during the course of the clinic sessions. On any given evening there may be as many as 20-25 volunteers showing up to assist at the General Clinic, and it really helps to process what they experience each session, said Toph.

Toph Peabody who has been wonderful in sharing his experience with me about the clinic emphaticaly states that the biggest problem that the homeless face on a daily basis is the lack of low-income or affordable housing. No matter what we can do to help out the homeless, it is clear that they all need some kind of housing, and this is the only place around that the homeless can drop in on where people are ready to ask them; how are you doing?, said Toph.

Special thanks to Toph Peabody for helping to bring this story alive.

For more information about the Suitcase Clinic, call; 510/643-6786