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Friday, February 21, 2020
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Health & Hospitals

FEB. 7 - J. C. Lewis, Union Mission Go Their Separate Ways

By Catherine Rendón
SBJ Staff

On Jan. 1,  J.C. Lewis Health Care Center and the Union Mission parted ways. The J.C. Lewis Health Care Center, which originally opened in 1999, will continue to operate at its current location at 125 Fahm St. in Savannah. Aretha Jones has worked for the Union Mission for 12 years was its executive vice president of health services at J.C. Lewis for the past six years and as of Jan. 1  became its executive director.

The Union Mission, Inc., has a long history in Savannah, begun in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s by George Akins, a Fundamentalist preacher. Savannah’s Homeless Authority, of which the Union Mission is a key player, is recognized as one of the biggest and best run practices nationally.  Frances Carter, interim CEO for the Union Mission, insists that her organization will continue to expand its programs to help the homeless with residential, employment and counseling services. Carter was hired from Mercer and has been in the position for six months.

Under Micheal Elliott’s leadership (1978-2007) the Union Mission grew in innovative ways.  Between 1987 and 1990 the Union Mission built three new homeless shelters, among them the Phoenix House, as well as Magdalen House, for women and children. Phoenix House, at 34th and Broad streets, was one of the first programs in the nation to offer programs for the homeless with HIV.  Other “firsts” include the first combined mental health and substance abuse facility along with a dental clinic.  Dutchtown, Elliott’s last project, on Middleground Road is like a campus, offering supportive housing to single males and those in recovery, along with programs for single women.

Elliott was proud of the seamless relationship that developed between the Union Mission and J.C. Lewis Health Care Center, especially between case managers and their relationship with clients. Under his leadership a dialogue was opened to discover where the barriers existed for clients and how to best address these obstacles.  Elliott felt that this strong connection better ensured that clients would be able to get the best treatment available to them and not fall between the cracks owing to logistics like transportation to medical appointments and keeping a regular tab on the receipt and taking of medicaments and treatment.
At present the largest provider of mental health is the jail and in Georgia, jails make up one of the biggest private businesses in the state. “We started going upstream before bodies started to float downstream. Let’s develop programs to capture our clients before they become homeless,” was one of Elliott’s ideas.  Although his tenure might have run a bit longer than was ideal and questions remain regarding financial mismanagement by some of Elliott’s colleagues, there is no doubt that Elliott made important contributions to the improvement of the lives of thousands.  Institutionally too, Elliott’s work provides a benchmark.

Elliott told the SBJ he is disappointed that the combined resources of both the J.C. Lewis Health Care Center and the Union Mission are being separated. By bringing together a variety of governmental and funding silos Elliott felt that medication monitoring and other programs which required constant attention helped the homeless break out of the vicious circle of homeless and joblessness.  Others, like Jones, do not see it this way.  They feel that important services can still be provided.  What is certain is that there are fewer funds for not-for-profits and the pickings are becoming scarcer. Katheryn Preston, executive director of the Georgia Alliance to End Homelessness in Marietta, Ga.,  explained how the “Federal government is actually providing services on the backs of not-for-profits to keep systems running.”

Sister Pat Baber, director of St. Mary’s Community Center, explains that the positive aspect of J.C. Lewis now being part of the Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) means more people can get help from the federal government in order to receive health care, not just the homeless.  New funding from the Chatham County Indigent Care Fund also means that individuals who previously could not qualify at certain  agencies or had little hope of finding help, can now seek services from institutions like the J.C. Lewis Health Care Center.

The profile of who qualifies for many of these services has changed a lot in the last couple of years because new segments of the local population are falling into the homeless, uninsured and indigent categories. This includes elementary, middle and high school students, a 37.4 percent rise since 2009.  It also includes families who were formerly working but have become jobless since 2007.

J.C. Lewis, the Community Health Mission, St. Mary’s Community Center and Good Samaritan are part of the Health Collaborative who have partnered with the Met Bank and the Community Cardiovascular Center among others, and are addressing the needs of this growing population in Savannah’s urban area.  Chatham County received $4.3 in federal funding and 35 percent of this sum will be shared among the above  four organizations.  The remaining 65 percent goes to the Curtis Cooper Clinic, under Leon Burton. Jones will use her part of this money to do an expansion to opening a clinic on Frederick Street, half way between Memorial and St.Joseph/Candler hospitals.

Porter doesn’t believe the continuum of care for this audience will be interrupted by this break. “Historically, J.C. Lewis and the Union Mission played an important part in the statewide network.  Making other agencies decide to look at their system on a state basis and pointed out that there were accessibility issues that needed to be put in order,” Porter added.  Porter, however, sees a hiccup in the continuum and understands what a slow and cumbersome process it is to recoup dollars back into the system, especially when their number are finite and  dwindling.

The main indicators to predict homelessness in each state are the poverty levels as defined by unemployment levels, heating and housing bills, etc.  The definition of poverty has become broader and has changed once more. The services that were established in the 1980s geared to individuals without a network, need to be revisited.  Porter told the SBJ: “Now we are seeing more unaccompanied youths out on the streets and pater familias with street signs that read: ‘Homeless parents with 3 Kids…’”

At present, Georgia rates 49th in its treatment of homeless children. The African-American population has a higher homelessness rate than whites. The numbers of single males out on the streets looks more evenly distributed between races.  The average age of homelessness, especially among males, is 35. Recently, more 55 to 60 year olds are being noticed in streets and shelters. Finally, there has been an increase of gang activity (and gun ownership) noted among the young homeless.

In 2010 the J.C. Lewis Health Care Center treated 6,053 individuals through outpatient services and 176 individuals through inpatient services. Both the Union Mission and J.C. Lewis have stated that they will continue serving the local homeless population without interruption. “The money should follow the indigent people in our community, not the agency,” Jones told the Savannah Business Journal.

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