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Living on the streets presents a range of challenges. 

People living rough experience an increased likelihood of abuse, intimidation, and sexual assault while dealing with harsh weather conditions and stigma. Another critical, but often overlooked, reality for people living with homelessness is limited access to medical services. 

Bringing light to this issue is the Street Doctor Program. For just under two years, Kate Coles and Vaan Phongsavan, a GP and nurse, respectively, have used a fitted-out van to provide free medical care to over 200 individuals living with homeless in Melbourne. 

Coles said the van eliminates countless barriers for homeless patients to access primary health care.

"Some of our homeless clients have problems with transport, have difficulties to get to an appointment on time, so by being there for them, we actually remove a lot of barriers," Coles told the ABC.

The health issues of the patients, Coles states, are varied. 

"We do see the normal general practice things, people with colds and the flu, but we do also see things that are more likely to happen to people who are homeless,” she told the Age. “People who are vulnerable are more likely to end up homeless, so there are also more mental health issues and people with drug and alcohol problems.” 

The program, a service from not-for-profit community health organization Cohealth, also refer patients to other Cohealth clinics, which specifically treat dental, podiatry, and mental health issues. 

Coles and Phongsavan also provide health services to asylum seekers. 

In a recent case, Coles explained how they treated an asylum seeker who “has been in the country for a number of years but has never had Medicare and never been allowed to work.” The man, who had high blood pressure and blood-sugar levels, was diagnosed with diabetes.

Through a refugee health service, the man was able to be supplied with medication free of charge.

Domestic violence, unemployment, Australia’s social housing crisis, and poverty are all key causes of homelessness. 

A January report by the Australian Productivity Commission revealed Victoria, the nation’s second-most populous state and home to Melbourne, spent $530 million on low-cost housing between 2017 and 2018. That figure comes down to just $83 per head.

The national average sits at $166.93. 

In Victoria, 24,000 people are homeless on any given day.

The importance of the service has not been lost on local leaders and decision-makers.

Sally Capp, the lord mayor of the City of Melbourne, recently announced $200,000 AUD would be invested into the service. The funding boost will enable the program to be extended and run across Mondays and Wednesdays within the city’s central business district. 

Cohealth program manager Ben Quinn said the funding injection was much appreciated. In the future, he hopes the program will expand to other states and suburbs and increase its number of operational days.

“We would love the street doctor to operate four or five days,” Quinn stated.


Defeat Poverty

Doctor Uses Minivan to Offer Melbourne’s Homeless Free Medical Care

By Madeleine Keck