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Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 11:03pm

For Savannah's Elderly And Homeless, Medical Care Can Be Out Of Reach

As the nation gets older, advocates for the homeless say they’re seeing more elderly people living in shelters, or outside. But many lack access to medical care to address the health needs that come with aging.

Like a lot of people who live in Savannah, Craig Rupert was drawn to the city by its beauty and historic charm. He says he saw a special about the city on public television and was dazzled by the images of the downtown area and River Street.

“It was awesome. I said, you gotta be kidding me. I knew kinda where Savannah was at, but….I was like, man, if I ever get a chance I’m gonna go to Savannah check it out,” he says.

Rupert, 53, says he saw his chance after the farm where he was working in Alabama was sold. He sold his tractor and some furniture and moved to Savannah about 18 months ago, he says. But Rupert says the money ran out and he found himself homeless, living under a bridge on the edge of downtown.

Residents of the camps depend on fires to keep warm at night, leading to what Rupert calls a recent “freak accident.”

“I just tripped one night, coming out of my tent … and my hand just went right into the firepit,” he says.

Rupert wound up with third-degree burns on his hand and forearm – bad enough, he says, to send him to a doctor for the first time in more than a year.

On a recent morning, he got a visit from Diane Daman, a retired nurse who’s working with the Chatham-Savannah Authority for the Homeless to reach out to medically fragile people living in tents. Rupert says he struggles to keep his hand clean because it’s still painful to touch.

The Homeless Authority’s executive director, Cindy Murphy-Kelley, says her teams routinely visit Savannah’s tent camps. But this year, they’re adding the medical component; they go out twice per month to check blood pressure and offer first aid supplies, blankets, and clean socks.

“We want to make sure that folks keep their feet dry who are living in the camps, so that we don’t have issues with sores on their feet,” she says.

The teams can take those who need immediate care to a low-cost clinic, or call 911.

About 300 people live outdoors in Savannah, and Murphy-Kelly estimates 60 percent are 50 or older. She says that’s creating a growing need for medical attention for people living in the camps. Some older residents should be in assisted living, she says, but lack insurance, family support, and other resources to help them navigate the health system

“They are at high risk for death in the camps, and we want to be able to serve those folks,” she says.

Shelters and clinics around the country are seeing more seniors among the homeless, says John Lozier, executive director of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

“It’s the aging of the Baby Boomers,” he says. “That’s the group that is the most vulnerable to the economic conditions that we have now. It is so easy for somebody with limited resources to lose what they have.”

Lozier says his organization’s member clinics are seeing what he calls “dramatic” growth in patients age 50 or older; the number jumped from 18 to 32 percent between 2002 and 2013.

In states like Georgia, which have declined to expand the federal Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, Lozier says social service groups have to rely on existing resources.

Few of the homeless patients at Savannah’s J.C. Lewis Primary Healthcare Center qualify for programs like Medicaid, says the CEO, Aretha Jones. More than half of the clinic’s patients are homeless. Patients are charged on a sliding fee scale based on income.

“We may be able to qualify some of them for Medicaid if some of their medical issues become extreme,” Jones says. “And then we see some mental health or substance abuse issues, especially mental health, we may be able to get some things qualified in that area.”

Up against those challenges, groups that work with the homeless are trying to meet the growing need largely with donations and volunteers. Murphy-Kelley says her organization will be making medical visits to the camps twice per month.