U-M med students support homeless shelters with critical supplies

June 15, 2020
Contact: Greta Guest gguest@umich.edu

A student-run program that brings medical care to the southeast Michigan homeless population has had to adapt in the face of COVID-19.

As the pandemic forced medical schools across the country to pull students from clinical settings, student leaders at the University of Michigan Medical School’s Wolverine Street Medicine initiative recognized that the population served by their program would be especially vulnerable to COVID.

“It occurred to me that, if even people with means are having a hard time buying hand sanitizer right now because stores are out, what does that mean for the homeless population?” said first-year medical school student Kenzie Corbin. “Shelters are crowded spaces. Anything can spread like wildfire in there.”

Medical students from the University of Michigan's Wolverine Street Medicine distribute supplies to the homeless. Image courtesy: Wolverine Street Medicine

Medical students from the University of Michigan’s Wolverine Street Medicine distribute supplies to the homeless. Image courtesy: Wolverine Street Medicine

Wolverine Street Medicine, a program in which Michigan Medicine students help care for southwest Michigan’s vulnerable homeless population through supervised clinic services in local shelters and sometimes on the street, is an important organization.

“It was incredible to see how quickly our student members mobilized and advocated on behalf of our patients and community,” said Claire Garpestad, a third-year medical school student and also the organization’s co-director of operations. “Medical students shifted to fill any role they could, and in doing so, we’re able to help continue to support this vulnerable population during very challenging times, even from a distance.”

Claire Garpestad

Claire Garpestad

The students turned Wolverine Street Medicine into a distribution network for donated hygiene and health supplies for the region’s homeless, including homemade hand sanitizers. Student volunteers signed up to receive kits to make sanitizer at home. Each kit includes a CDC-sanctioned sanitizer recipe along with a funnel, aloe, isopropyl alcohol and 30-count bag of 2-ounce plastic bottles that were ostensibly designed for the kitchen but are being repurposed for health care.

“They are actually for cookie frosting, but we are able to buy them in bulk online and they are the perfect size” for individual hand sanitizer bottles, Corbin said. “The students have a one-week timeframe to use the kits and return the sanitizers to us. We see this as a more sustainable way to involve more students, make more hand sanitizer and keep the social distancing to a maximum.”

Hundreds of mini-bottles of sanitizer have been distributed to shelters in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Detroit through the students’ efforts.

“It’s no secret that PPE and other health supplies have been really hard to get your hands on. In the middle of the crisis, we’re focused on keeping folks safe and giving them a place to social distance. You need something as simple as hand sanitizer in order to do that successfully,” said Dan Kelly, executive director of the Washtenaw County Shelter Association. “What Wolverine Street Medicine has been doing is incredibly appreciated.”

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The students have some institutional funding but are partially reliant on product donations. In addition to sanitizer, the student groups have collected and distributed disinfectant wipes, surgical gloves, masks, and hygiene and meal kits to remain connected to the region’s homeless community through the pandemic.

“While our classrooms might be empty, nothing will ever measure up to the learning opportunities presented by this unfolding health care challenge. I’m proud that our student community is eager to engage,” said Joseph Kolars, senior associate dean for education and global initiatives at the U-M Medical School. “The passion, creativity and speed with which our students are responding to this crisis is gratifying and deeply moving.”

 

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