Emily Buzzell MPH ’10 writes, “While I was getting my MPH at Berkeley I spent my Sundays volunteering with the meals program at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. I quickly befriended James, a client of the program, who lived in a seedy, rundown hotel in the Tenderloin district. When James wasn’t eating his meals at Glide, he was struggling with mental illness, a substance abuse disorder, loneliness, and the fear that his family in Haiti had died in the earthquake. Nonetheless, he was one of the warmest people I have ever met and his greeting of “Hey Emily—give me a hug!” made my time volunteering on Sundays wonderfully fulfilling and worthwhile.
“Around the same time, Josh Bamberger of the San Francisco Department of Public Health visited the Interdisciplinary class and told us about his work in the Direct Access to Housing (DAH) program. The DAH program follows the Housing First model and provides permanent, supportive housing to chronically homeless people who have complex medical conditions, mental illnesses, and substance abuse disorders. My classmate, Tony Battista, collaborated with Josh to research health outcomes of people living in DAH’s supportive housing units. They found that when you put a roof over someone’s head without requiring that they be clean, sober and seeking employment, etc., health outcomes improve. In addition, taxpayers save money, and homelessness is one step closer to becoming a thing of the past.
“In part because of my friendship with James at Glide, and because I was so energized by Josh’s and Tony’s work with the DAH program, I reached out to Josh and asked how I could get more involved. Josh put me in touch with Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing (DISH), an organization that partners with DAH to house chronically homeless San Francisco residents in single resident occupancy units at hotels in the Tenderloin. I ended up working with DISH to facilitate a weekly discussion group among residents at one of their hotels. I had a lot of fun as I got to know the handful of residents who came downstairs every Monday morning to eat blueberry muffins, drink coffee, talk about the Giants in the World Series, and discuss ways to make their community more engaging, lively, and cohesive.
“The discussion group ended too soon. I got my degree last December and moved back to the East Coast to be closer to my family. But I’d had so much fun working with DISH that I wanted to do similar work on the East Coast. Tony Battista had gone to medical school at George Washington University, so I asked him if he knew of any Housing First initiatives in Washington, D.C. He pointed me to Pathways to Housing, an organization that provides housing and outpatient mental health services for chronically homeless people living on the streets of D.C. After setting up a meeting with one of the staff psychiatrists one thing led to another, and I was soon hired as a Service Coordinator on one of Pathways’s Assertive Community Treatment teams.
“I’ve been in my position since March and this has been one of the most fulfilling, rewarding, and eye-opening times of my life. I’m on a team with other service coordinators—a nurse, a certified addictions counselor, and a psychiatrist. We have a case load of ~75 clients and provide wraparound services to help our clients manage their housing, mental health, financial, physical health, substance abuse, legal, and social needs. Each day is different and my clients never fail to surprise me. On moment I’ll be counseling someone on how to develop coping mechanisms for their paranoid schizophrenia and the next I’ll be in a grocery store teaching someone why it is unhealthy (and gross) to put half- and-half on their cereal.
My job is sometimes exhausting and frustrating, but I’ve developed some good outlets for countering this. I’ve joined a couple of running groups—sunrise runs around the Washington Monument are a regular treat and I also recently completed the Marine Corps Marathon. I’ve made a great group of friends and I’ve enjoyed seeing the local sights, checking out good restaurants, and retreating to the Appalachian Mountains from time to time.
I still miss Berkeley and often wonder how James and the folks at DISH are doing. There was a day here in July when the heat index went up to 122 degrees—unheard of in the Bay Area! And D.C. has a horrendous selection of bubble tea places.
“I’m really grateful for my start in the MPH program at Berkeley—it’s what got me to where I am today!”