How a team of volunteers is filling a medical void for Eugene’s most vulnerable.
Words & Photos by Duncan Moore
On a brisk Sunday morning, a line wrapped around the outside of the Occupy Medical Clinic in Eugene. People in wheelchairs sat next to pit bulls and shopping carts overflowing with belongings. The faint aroma of marijuana wafted over from a group huddled just outside the clinic’s boundaries. The patients, almost all home- less and uninsured, waited restlessly for their names to be called by one of the clinic’s volunteers.
Sue Sierralupe, a tall woman with short gray hair, moved among them. Her manner was straightforward and efficient as she made her rounds, ensuring everything ran smoothly. As the clinic manager she is responsible for getting as many people as possible — 30 to 60 on average — seen during the free clinic’s four-hour window. The clinic’s patients have few choices on the street in regards to healthcare. According to Sierralupe, Occupy Medical acts as the last option for Eugene’s most vulnerable people, a “safety net” to catch the uninsured who slip through the cracks of America’s uneasy health care system.
While the number of uninsured Americans dropped to a historic low of 8.9 percent in 2016, there are still gaps. Lack of health insurance remains a serious problem in certain areas of the country, including Lane County.
According to 2015 U.S. Census data, 16.3 percent of Lane County res- idents are uninsured, approximately 26,000 people out of a population of 163,000. To make matters worse, Lane County has a homeless population three times the size of comparable areas. According to the 2016 Lane County Homeless Count, over 12,000 people were homeless at some point during the past year.
For the unhoused, everyday medical problems that go untreated can become severe issues. Living outside is hard on the body. Conditions like gangrene and frostbite, unthinkable for people who live under a roof, are commonplace for those living on Eugene’s streets. When the elevated health risks of homelessness combine with a lack of health insurance, the results can be devastating.
Shari Walton has experienced this problem firsthand, as a local union healthcare organizer for SEIU 49, a Northwest workers’ union that represents thousands of hospital employees. Hospital workers in her union told stories about uninsured patients caught in a vicious cycle of chronic medical problems and inadequate treatment.
Walton summarized how hospital visits are different for those who can’t pay. “You can imagine going home from the hospital after a major operation or illness. Someone would take care of us, we’d be in a warm bed. Not for them; after treatment they have 15 minutes to get out of the hospital and they’re right back out onto the streets. So my members tell me after they get them well, they’re back again in a month, worse o than before,” Walton said.
Back at the Occupy Medical Clinic there are countless stories that chronicle the consequences of living without a home or health insurance. Some have a happy ending. Mark and Jessica Hermosillo have used the clinic several times since moving from the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Sitting in the waiting room, Mark pulled up his pant leg to reveal a scar from a staph infection in his leg. He then spoke about Jessica’s recent lung infection, which started as a simple cough and turned out to be almost fatal.
According to Mark, they wouldn’t have made it without the clinic. “You don’t get this level of care anywhere else,” he said. “These people, they’re saving lives. They saved my leg; they saved her life.”
For Sue Sierralupe, stories like these are all too common, and reinforce her belief in the importance of places like Occupy Medical. At a recent Eugene city council meeting, Sierralupe told the story of a young, unhoused man with epilepsy. On a freezing night this past winter the police evicted him from his riverside camp. As he walked along a bike path he suffered a seizure, likely brought on by stress, and accidentally kicked o his shoes before passing out. By the time he was discovered in the morning, his feet were swollen from frostbite, and eventually all of his toes were amputated.
“We make sure everyone is taken care of,” Sierralupe said. “There are people that Occupy Medical is all they’ve got. Without it, they’d die.”
A unique aspect of Occupy Medical is that it’s operated and funded entirely by volunteers, which helps them keep their services free. Doctors, nurses and concerned community members come together once a week to work as an integrated medical care unit. This means they can treat wounds and diseases, refill prescriptions, provide mental health and support services, distribute clothes and even give haircuts, all at no cost.
“It’s all volunteers and the community,” said Sierralupe. “Everything, with a few exceptions, has just been the community step- ping in and saying ‘I heard you need bandages, here. I heard you need help paying for pharmaceuticals, let me write you a check.’ It’s like Lego-brick-by-Lego-brick.”
This reliance goes back to Occupy Medical’s roots as a first aid tent for the 2011 Occupy Wall Street encampment. The organization was officially founded in 2012, when a grant allowed them to purchase a bus. Since then, they’ve set up a mobile clinic every Sunday.
An estimated 2,000 mobile clinics like Occupy Medical operate across the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In Eugene, one clinic isn’t enough. Sierralupe also works full-time at White Bird, a collective of different clinics that provide low-cost healthcare services. Similar to Occupy, the White Bird clinics are aimed at Eugene’s uninsured and un- housed, and the two work together as a sort of healthcare safety net for the community.
Like most of her colleagues, Sierralupe hopes to one day see America’s healthcare system evolve into a single-payer model. Until then, she says, clinics need to fill the gap, with more places working like Occupy Medical does. She points out that around the United States healthcare clinics have begun to adopt Occupy Medical’s integrated system. “Its time has clearly come,” she said.
By half past four, the crowds dispersed from the clinic. The remaining people leaned against the clinic wall, speaking with friends, while Sue calmed a woman recovering from an anxiety attack. A light rain began to fall and a tranquil feeling took over, a sense that everyone had been taken care of. But Sue Sierralupe and the volunteers at Occupy Medical knew it was a false sense of calm, and that next Sunday there would be more patients, more injuries and more people to help.