Austin paramedic leads efforts in homeless outreach program

Amber Price said seeing the same people make the same mistakes made her want to find ways to help people beyond rushing to them in an ambulance


By Chase Karacostas
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN — Amber Price walks around Austin handing out the essentials such as bus passes, water bottles, medication and paperwork for birth certificates to the people she sees every day living on the streets.

Price, a paramedic for 15 years, is one of the founding members of the city's Homeless Outreach Street Team, the boots on the ground who are trying to connect people to housing, transportation, health care and other services.

Amber Price, a community health paramedic and founding member of the city's Homeless Outreach Street Team, checks on a homeless woman in a tent under Interstate 35 at Cesar Chavez Street. At right is Doug Huddleston, who also lives under the overpass. (Photo/Tribune News Service by Jay Janner, American-Statesman)
Amber Price, a community health paramedic and founding member of the city's Homeless Outreach Street Team, checks on a homeless woman in a tent under Interstate 35 at Cesar Chavez Street. At right is Doug Huddleston, who also lives under the overpass. (Photo/Tribune News Service by Jay Janner, American-Statesman)

"We will physically take them to appointments if need be and advocate for the level of care that they probably need," said Karen Dorrier, who was Price's field partner on Wednesday, "like a case manager that works with them out in the field."

Community health paramedics like Price and the Travis County mental health care provider Integral Care, where Dorrier is a program manager, work with Austin police and the Downtown Austin Community Court to eliminate barriers to permanent housing that Austin's homeless population can face.

In some cases, that might mean helping someone get a new copy of their birth certificate or Social Security card. In other instances, where heath is an issue, it could be rushing someone to an emergency room.

Price and Dorrier said the groundwork is essential because they have to build trust with people on the streets before they can try to help them.

Mornings for the HOST field workers start at Austin's Sobering Center in downtown. Team members going out that day meet to figure out where to go and who to hit up specifically. Generally, the focus is on downtown and West Campus, two hot spots for Austin's homeless community.

Price and the other HOST members then typically fan out across the city in pairs.

Some people, like Lynnee Watkins, are seen every day to be brought medication. Others might be meeting HOST for the first time. In many cases, HOST personnel might not be able to establish trust with someone until the 12th or even 20th time they stop by.

"They don't trust the system. A lot of times things haven't worked out before," Dorrier said. "It's a daily thing. Sometimes it's just like, 'Hey, how are you doing today?' ... And then finally, all of sudden, it's like, 'I think I do need substance use treatment.'"

After arriving under an overpass on Cesar Chavez Street, Price and Dorrier went out to check on Doug Huddleston, who turned 49 that day. They were meeting to check on him and a 20-year-old woman, Jolie Fifer, both of whom are near the top of Austin's permanent housing lists.

Huddleston said he hopes to be in permanent housing by the time he turns 50 and leave homelessness behind for good.

"If it weren't for them, I would have given up. I wouldn't even be here. I would've said, 'To hell with it,'" Huddleston said. "They show that they are here for us."

Huddleston said he has been homeless for 30 years, trapped in a hole that became ever harder to break out of the longer he spent on the streets. He said Price and others with HOST, however, changed that.

"They make me feel like I want to keep striving. They make me want to achieve my goals," Huddleston said. "I don't have family down here. My daddy was the only family I had down here. When he died, (HOST) became my family."

Fifer also has seen the benefits of HOST, and an outreach and engagement specialist from Integral Care, Becky Casey, stopped by to have her sign paperwork while Price was checking on her.

Much of what the team does is "meet people where they are," Dorrier said.

On Congress Avenue, Price and Dorrier found Watkins to give him his daily medication. Some people, Price says, can hold on to a week's or month's supply, but for a lot of homeless people it gets stolen, so it's more reliable to bring any drugs directly to them.

Watkins said he wouldn't be in a stable place without HOST. He stays in the same place most days to make sure they can find him.

Price said her years as a paramedic, seeing the same people make the same mistakes over and over again, made her want to find ways to help people beyond rushing to them in an ambulance.

Motivations like hers, and a push from the Downtown Austin Alliance, resulted in the creation of HOST to connect resources across the city.

"The worst call is not being able to solve someone's problem," Price said. "Coming out here and doing this, we can actually find a solution."

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©2019 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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