“We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”
― Saint Francis of Assisi
By Gary Kehoe
In 2010, Mercer County had the eighth highest percentage of people living in poverty in New Jersey—roughly 25%, according to the New Jersey Poverty Research Institute’s Poverty Benchmark report, released in May 2012. Large statistics often paint a very distant picture of what it is to be poor or in need, but today, economic struggle, often accompanied by homelessness, is no longer a concept confined to shelters and charities.
Amidst tough economic times, there remains a tight-knit, dedicated system of volunteers and professionals who make it their mission to preserve a spirit of hope and care for the most vulnerable. St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton, New Jersey is a leader in this mission, reaching out to those who find themselves struggling to meet one of their most basic needs, their health and well-being.
“The beauty of what St. Francis does is that we turn down no one,” said Christine Stephenson, Vice President of St. Francis Medical Center. “Regardless of whether the patient has no address, no insurance, we will take care of them. Our doors are open.”
St. Francis is one of New Jersey’s leading care centers for the homeless and underprivileged. Despite the proximity of the hospital to major areas of the state, located just ten minutes from the state’s capitol and fifteen minutes from one of the state’s premier colleges, the individuals who pass through its doors can be very misunderstood.
In a recent interview, Ms. Stephenson and Vice President of Mission and Ministry Russ Hansel offered their perspectives. Speaking to what he saw as an inaccurate stereotype, Hansel shared, “I think there are two definitions of ‘homeless’ that we deal with. When some people hear we take care of the homeless, they picture the stereotype of ‘druggie, alcoholic, deviant’. When you take the time to see what we are doing you realize the new definition has to be broader. It’s everyday people: single parents and children that we care for.”
“A lot of our patients do work and are insured,” Stephenson added. She explained that addiction or behavioral health related issues were the primary causes for admittance. Many of the patients they see cannot afford their treatments or access to services. “These people are not morally corrupt or socially deviant,” she shared. “They are just in a rough patch, you know? They don’t have money.”
Using the statistical formula developed in the publication “Estimating the Need,” it is projected that over the course of a year, 2,469 adults and children are homeless in Mercer County, according to merceralliance.org, and the correlation between poor health and low income remains consistent.
According to the Legal Services of New Jersey, 13% of people reporting poor health bring in less than $15,000. (Legal Services of NJ). Stephenson and Hansel were in agreement that the heart of the issue was economic, and explained that homelessness was not only a result of economic struggle, but could also be the cause of tremendous expense to the healthcare system as well if not handled properly.
Though a citizen might be quick to think free healthcare for the uninsured or homeless to be an unfair burden on those taxpayers who are insured, it is actually, according to Stephenson, Hansel, and many other service organizations, an essential way to prevent a more costly alternative.
Stephenson said that the majority of St. Francis’ patients seen in emergency rooms at least 40 times a year were homeless. Proactive efforts are underway to lower this number through early recognition and intervention, preventing costly visits to the Emergency Room in the future.
St. Francis Medical Center adds to its traditional hospital duties an out-patient service program designed to make itself an early resource and develop meaningful relationships with those who find themselves in shelters and social service programs. Rather than waiting for an individual to arrive at St. Francis, St. Francis places social workers, Nurse Practitioners (DNP’s), and even graduate-medical students in places like Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) and Rescue Mission. These efforts saves the cost of frequent emergency room visits.
Stephenson and Hansel mentioned Peg Nasaro, DNP for St. Francis Medical Center, as one of the very important people in their care system. Once a week, Nasaro visits Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, dedicating personal time to individuals who need basic medical care on behalf of St. Francis Medical Center. Nasaro’s consistent presence and dedication to those in need is part of St. Francis’ long-term goal of developing meaningful relationships which, according to St. Francis medical staff, prove essential in care process.
“You must foster a relationship with people,” Hansel emphasized. “That personal engagement, which may take weeks or even months, helps you really understand what people’s needs are. That’s really where it starts.”
Just last year, Peg Nasaro encountered a young man in T.A.S.K who claimed he felt ill. He had not been seen before in the St. Francis Emergency Room or hospital, but as Nasaro discovered, he was a diabetic who had gone untreated for a very long period of time and was in serious condition. The man could not afford his treatments, and in his present state, was not expected to live past 45. It was the early intervention by Peg Nasaro, and the handoff to St. Francis Medical Center, that eventually led to the man’s recovery.
“We didn’t just release him from the hospital and forget, either,” added Stephenson. “We got him in touch with those who could help him find work to pay for his treatments. In the meantime, Russ even paid for those treatments out of his own pocket.”
Hansel nodded, assuring that, “After hospital treatment may be complete, we ensure a ‘warm handoff’ to the next step in their recovery and remain in contact. Hansel and Stephenson each remain in contact with their former patient, and were pleased to share that he is currently living in his own residence, employed and in good health. The man’s life and the cost of more severe emergency care in the future had he gone untreated, were saved.
This story is one of many, and those like it are not limited just to St. Francis Medical Center. As Peg Nasaro plays her role for St. Francis within T.A.S.K, so does St. Francis play its particular role in a much larger community of volunteers and professionals who share the same goal.
“We are… ‘unusually blessed,’” said Stephenson, “in that we have such a tight group of people working together with us, committed to serving the needs of the people who need help most. Sometimes we even hear from other counties and they send their needy people here to Trenton.”
St. Francis Medical Center joins Henry J. Austin Medical Center, Greater Trenton Behavioral Healthcare, Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, Rescue Mission, and HomeFront, in the effort to connect and provide for the individuals who may find themselves in need of a helping hand.
St. Francis said, “Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” Today’s economy has shown many that poverty and hard times are not impossible for anyone. A community of support in the Mercer County area makes it their mission to show that recognizing the humanity beyond stereotype, and saving the cost of care, is quite possible.
St. Francis Medical Center:
Located on the corner of Hamilton and Chambers Street, Trenton, NJ 08609
Henry J. Austin Medical Center:
Locations in Trenton, NJ:
317 Chambers St.
321 N. Warren St.
112 Ewing St.
For immediate assistance: