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Sue Bush
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EMS:Courage And Compassion In Action

By Shawn Godfrey
07:18AM / Monday, April 09, 2007

Shawn Godfrey us a paramedic and operations manager for the Viallge Ambulance Service in Williamstown, Mass..
Welcome to "EMS:Courage and Compassion In Action," a weekly column written by Village Ambulance Services Operations Manager and paramedic Shawn Godfrey. Godfrey's columns will appear on Monday and will focus on the reality of the emergency services medical profession.

Down And Out? Not So Simple

I would guess that when most of you hear the term “homeless,” you imagine a disheveled “street-person” or vagrant sleeping on a park bench, or pushing a rickety grocery cart packed with the entire lot of his or her possessions, or hustling up and down the street, asking passersby for spare pocket change. I would also speculate that most of you consider homelessness a dilemma primarily found in larger cities.

Prior to the start of my emergency medical services (EMS) career, I harbored that same notion. I had no real contact with the homeless, aside from offering an artificial smile or insincere head-nod while passing them on local downtown streets. Despite witnessing the same faces on a regular basis, I wasn’t the least bit concerned, let alone sympathetic. They didn’t know me, I didn’t know them, and that was perfectly acceptable.

During an ambulance call involving a man who became homeless due to ill-fated financial circumstances, my eyes opened, to say the least. This individual, once considered a respectable, hard-working member of society, is now regarded as a pariah because he lost his job, automobile, and eventually his home.

I realized that change will not come until society begins to understand that the people who are or can become homeless are our neighbors and members of our community. Based on the particulars of that ambulance call, I also realized my perception and treatment towards the homeless must immediately change.

The major reasons and causes for homelessness as documented by many reports and studies include:

Lack of affordable housing

Low paying jobs

Substance abuse and lack of needed services

Mental illness and lack of needed services

Domestic violence



Prison release and re-entry into society

Change and cuts in public assistance

Natural Disaster

Although Western Massachusetts isn’t considered a major urban hub in America, surprisingly, it does have its share of homeless people.

Hidden within the dark corners of many local landscapes, there are men, women and, unfortunately, more and more children calling the outdoors home. During the colder months, lack of shelter can turn remarkably difficult for people without protection from the elements. Hypothermia and frostbite are just a few of the quandaries this demographic is faced with, and although most areas do offer homeless shelters, they are usually unable to meet the overwhelming demands placed upon them.

The medical conditions afflicting the homeless are rather specialized, ultimately creating alternative medical treatment specific to the population. Many skin diseases, as well as an array of dental and personal hygiene maladies, are commonly seen by emergency providers. The effects of substance abuse involving the homeless are important health and safety issues for emergency responders to consider as well.

Prehospital emergency medical care for the homeless can place serious financial restraints on many ambulance services, especially in high-density urban populations where call volume is potentially greater. Despite many organizations providing compulsory ambulance transportation for the homeless, they receive no fiscal reimbursement for medical care or transportation rendered. State medical insurance is an option, but many homeless can’t or don’t possess the means to access it.

Because it is difficult to know how many people are homeless at any one time, the crisis continues to retain its grasp on society.

According to the White House's Commission on Homelessness, it is estimated that as high as eight million people are currently without adequate housing. Furthermore, this figure can only be estimated because the homeless are often in locations where researchers cannot find or statistically count them, ultimately skewing their results or ending their research all-together.

Unfortunately, eradicating homelessness won't be accomplished any time soon. A major contributor to the problem is that most of society blames the homeless for living on the streets; the source of their own misfortune, if you will.

In the public eye, substance abuse is seen as a primary reason why people become homeless. Conversely, many homeless people have acquired drug and/or alcohol addiction AFTER the loss of permanent shelter and do not desire to live on the streets.

Written below is a poem by Gary H. Twenty years ago, Gary suffered a debilitating stroke. Not only was he impoverished by medical bills totaling $42,000.00, but he was permanently disabled. He lost the total use of his left arm and sustained brain damage that subsequently left him confused and epileptic. With too little money, Gary became homeless. He was forced to eat from food lines to survive, sleep at the Salvation Army, and seek medical care from the "poor people's" hospital. Here are his words:


My world fell apart the other day.
A personal tragedy tore my world away.
I was once so comfortable and secure.
My life is now a constant blur.
Family times and days well spent
Are now replaced by cold, hard cement.
I never meant for it to be this way.
A personal tragedy tore my world away.
It's kind of you to help me when you do.
Maybe you realize it could happen to you.

Despite these problems, there are still positive things that can be done. Many local organizations are helping by maintaining soup kitchens or food banks. Also, many charitable groups operate food drives or physically go into urban areas and dole out food to the homeless.

Above all, I believe recognizing the problem and attempting to make a change is the most important thing you can do.

As Gary put it “maybe [you’ll] realize it could happen to you.

Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless

Village Ambulance Service Food Drive

The Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance

Your Comments
Post Comment
Very interesting. I think society likes to keep its head stuck in the sand sometimes.If you don't see it then it doesn't exist. But it does! Great writing Shawn!
from: Colleenon: 04-14 00:00:00-2007

Loved the column!
from: Heatheron: 04-12 00:00:00-2007

It's amazing how you can take a subject and pepper it with both the "EMS" and public's side and make it readable for everyone.
from: George Bellevueon: 04-10 00:00:00-2007

Shawn, your articles have been and continue to be insightful, informative and compelling. Most people turn a blind eye to the homeless, let alone donate money or even their time to assist someone less fortunate. I know you have volunteered your time to those less fortunate and I hope we can do that together soon. Looking forward to next week's article!! ;)
from: gold deuce girlon: 04-09 00:00:00-2007

I agree with the rest of the comments. Most of us should be a little more thankful for what we have and not worry about keeping up with our neighbor. I believe this mentality can be a cause for homelessness by itself.
from: Jason T.on: 04-09 00:00:00-2007

I think we all need to be thankful for what we have and not take anything for granted! I have had someone very close to me be on the verge of loosing everthing because of her significant other passing in a freak accident. You just dont know! Thanks for such great insite!!!
from: Michelleon: 04-09 00:00:00-2007

I enjoyed another great column! Please continue to write.
from: Louis (Lou)on: 04-09 00:00:00-2007

I've personally thought of this many times in mylife. It is a reality that could happen to anyone. One simple chain of reactions could cause it. I like to think I am thankful for what I have.
from: bernieon: 04-09 00:00:00-2007

I think this article will open the eyes of many of us who are fortunate. Thank you...
from: Stephenon: 04-09 00:00:00-2007

Shawn, great article. Gary is right this could happen to any one of us. Keep up the grat articled. Read ya in two weeks.
from: Chuckon: 04-09 00:00:00-2007

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