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A Nurse in a Book: Outreach Nurses Help Families in Motels and Shelters to Stay Healthy
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Currently in Massachusetts there are 800 families with children living in motels as they transition from homelessness. The Family Team at Boston’s Healthcare For The Homeless has just launched “Safe and Sound: A Healthy Child Toolkit for Homeless Mothers.” The toolkit gives women living in shelters and motels tools to help keep their children safe and healthy during this long and isolating journey.
A nurse in a book: Outreach nurses help families in motels and shelters to stay helathy

The birth of the motel coincided with the growth of the highway system and the popularity of long distance road trips in the 1920s. It was a convenient and affordable option for travelers.

Today the highway motel is home to people facing a different kind of journey. It is one marked by isolation, fear, and the stress of caring for small children alone, disconnected from social networks and critical support services. All over the country, families are becoming homeless. Many are living in motels as a temporary solution. Yet this solution is one that is challenging, expensive, and difficult for both parents and children.

In Massachusetts today, there are 800 families in transition living in motels. Outreach workers expect this number to increase in light of the recession. “This is a burgeoning population,” explains Toni Williams, R.N. of Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program’s (BHCHP) Family Team. “The only lifeline that you have is a phone, if that. You have no car and you are located at a far-flung motel off the highway, with no one around you. It is easy to second guess yourself when it comes to the health needs of your children and yourself.”

Williams refers to life in a motel as “the waiting place,” quoting from Dr. Seuss’s children book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” In the book, “the waiting place” is “the most horrible place.”  Efforts by the BHCHP Family Team and other outreach nurses like Toni Williams make the waiting place a kinder, safer place for families in transition. In addition to outreach to motels, the BHCHP Family Team provides care for families with children living in shelters and substance use recovery treatment programs.

“This is a stressful place to be and as soon as we can help people get out of the waiting place, the better. I started this work four years ago. At the time there was a 9-14 month wait time for affordable housing. Today that has increased to 12-18 months. That’s a long time,” says Williams.

Outreach nurses like Williams are knocking on motel room doors much like a visiting nurse. They offer answers to medical questions, episodic and acute health care services, compassion, education, and empowerment.

“We are here for them and there is no question too small. People are often very wary and usually have experienced trauma, but we follow up with them until they are housed. We’ll call someone to find out how a job interview went. Believe me, that has everything to do with someone’s health right now.”

In addition to providing a human connection and critical services, nurses on the BHCHP Family Team are distributing “Safe and Sound: A Healthy Child Toolkit for Homeless Mothers.” The toolkit was written by Sharon Morrison of BHCHP, with contributions from many others. It is part of the Women’s Health Initiative and funded by a grant from The Boston Scientific Foundation.

The toolkit is a resource that offers basic healthcare and first aid information. It helps parents in isolation to understand reportable signs and to know when to call a doctor, or when to take a child into urgent care.

The BHCHP Family Team has distributed over 300 toolkits through outreach services. Horizons For Homeless Children is a daycare center and the primary hub for distributing this resource. The center reports that it has been well received by both parents and teachers.

“Since mothers are with their children every day, we try to empower them, so that they know when something is normal and when something is not normal. The toolkit is like a nurse in a book. It addresses everything from allergic reactions and anemia to meningitis, vomiting and warts. Women know I am there to help them, but it is always good to have that reference in black and white,” says Williams.

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