Two buttons of his shirt have popped open across his ample belly, which spills over the rim of his dingy pants. He is 43 but looks older, with close-cropped black hair, enormous arms and a broad, gregarious face. Crouching in front of him on the hard concrete, a UCLA student volunteer, clean and fresh and neatly dressed, is tenderly washing and massaging his huge feet as they soak in a dishpan filled with soapy water.
“This ain’t an act,” says Fats, looking up and down the sidewalk at the dozen or more homeless men and women who have gathered for the UCLA Mobile Clinic. “I don’t think they have a school that can teach this sort of thing. Being out here with us, it’s just something these young people have in their hearts.”
Every Wednesday evening throughout the year about 16 students and a supervising physician arrive at the corner of Sycamore and Romaine, unloading from the back of a van tables, chairs, cots, plastic boxes of client records, medical supplies and metal poles and tarps for makeshift examining rooms. For the next four hours, they will care for 20 or more homeless clients, men and women who are shunned daily by most everyone who passes them on the street. But there is no rejection here. Students press whisper-close to talk, putting their hands on an arm, a leg, a shoulder, speaking comforting words, asking questions about their health, their lives, their friends, their families.
“I love … to learn [in the classroom] about topics like mental illness and things like that, but you can’t fully understand it unless you see it in real life,” says student volunteer Jo Marie Tran Janco. “It is the same with homelessness. There’s a big difference between learning about homelessness in a classroom and seeing it and interacting with it.”
The medical care the students dispense is basic. After an undergraduate caseworker talks to a client, medical students (who are supervised by an attending physician) dispense what medications they can — Tylenol, Sudafed or Nyquil for colds, beta blockers for hypertension, antibiotics or skin creams for infections, inhalers for asthma. When a concern is too serious, the students refer clients to hospitals or clinics, and then hope that they’ll actually go.
Paul has been coming to the clinic for about two years and regularly receives hygiene kits with vitamins, toothpaste, shampoo, soap and other personal-care supplies. “Are you going to your meetings?” Tran Janco asks. “No more falling off the wagon?” No, Paul says, smiling. No more falling off the wagon.
“What is happening here,” says Tran Janco, “is about a level of caring, about the willingness to listen and to accept them.”
Says Paul: “Their positive energy feels really good, and they really care about the people down here. It helps a lot. Where else are you going to go to get this kind of help? Nowhere.”