In September 2012, Dr. George Rosenberg and Michael Aiken, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands, opened a free medical clinic for the homeless. With the help of first lady Cecile DeJongh, the clinic began in one room at the Bethlehem House Shelter for the Homeless, space donated by CCVI.
The clinic has since grown to include four rooms and has become an essential part of a bigger movement to prepare homeless clients for reentry into society.
The clinic came into being partly because deJongh shared Rosenberg’s concerns about the plight of the homeless on St. Thomas. After speaking to a number of area retailers, she proposed the clinic and brought together Rosenberg, Aiken and Health Director Chris Finch.
DeJongh said that the philosophy behind the clinic has always been a collaborative community effort to support and care for the homeless.
Rosenberg said that My Brother’s Workshop transformed both the original room and the additional space, installing shelves and lighting to create exam rooms.
The V.I. Health Department donated an examination table, and the late Dr. James Clayton and Red Hook Family Practice created a donated a supply and medication list. Clayton was also responsible for procuring the donation of a digital record management system the clinic uses.
Desiree Lacharite volunteers her time to manage the clinic’s IT.
Initially the clinic and the volunteers were limited by space, resources and finances, according to Rosenberg. Now the clinic includes three exam rooms and one room for psychological and psychiatric care.
Lori Thompson provides psychological care for patients at the clinic, while Dr. Lori McPearse offers psychiatric care.
Rosenberg said the small pharmacy the clinic has been able to maintain is a key part of treating patients’ mental and physical health, both short and long-term.
Rosenberg and his practice partner, Dr. Jeffrey Guller, serve as the pharmacists at the clinic. Registered nurses like Jo Ann Sickler and Diane Holmberg are essential for the clinic to run smoothly, Rosenberg emphasized.
On a given clinic day, area physicians such as Drs. Robin Ellis, Gayan Hall, Jessica Wilson and Thelma Ruth Watson may also donate their expertise.
A number of specialists also work with the free clinic. Dr. Lawrence Goldman is a gastroenterologist and treats patients with related conditions. Dr. Adam Shapiro treats those with ear, nose and throat issues. Dr. Byron William Biscoe treats patients with eye concerns.
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Chase volunteered with the clinic in November, and Rosenberg said Chase saw so many patients, he is returning to this month’s clinic to follow up. Dr. George Adam Flowers is another orthopedic surgeon who volunteers his time and service with the clinic.
In addition to donating their time, services and supplies to the clinic, Rosenberg added that one several occasions, when a patient required a procedure that could not be done in the clinic setting, the St. Thomas medical community pooled together to ensure that the patient’s needs were met.
In 2013, Dr. Donald Pomeranz began volunteering dental care to the list of services the clinic offers. His practice partner, Dr. Whitney Gray, along with St. Thomas dentists Drs. Lucian Moolenaar, Michael Enloe and Horace Griffith also volunteer their services for the clinic’s patients.
Patients who come to the clinic are not all necessarily homeless, but they do all receive the same level of care. Rosenberg said that one of the most common health issues the clinic sees is diabetes, but several patients have made major improvements under the clinic’s care. "We have seen some real successes."
He added that there are still many procedures and services the clinic would like to be able to offer, including dentures. When asked about his long-term goals for the clinic, Rosenberg stated, "I would love for it to be capable of taking everyone who needs its services."
The clinic’s greatest need, both immediately and long-term, is donations to purchase medications. Insulin, Rosenberg said, is one of the most crucial medications the clinic’s free pharmacy provides; it is also one of the most expensive. The clinic is entirely privately funded.
DeJongh said that the ability to offer both psychological and psychiatric care is crucial for the clinic. She added that it fits with CCVI’s goal to enable and equip people to become healthy and work to rejoin society.
CCVI won a local grant in 2012 to create a program for housing homeless people in order to help them regain independence. Since October this year, Aiken said CCVI has successfully moved seven people from the streets into independent housing. He anticipates that another three clients will be placed in apartments by the end of December.
The clinic, Aiken said, has been a crucial part of the success of the program. "The clinic helps to get them ready to go into housing. We can use the clinic to keep them healthy."
So many local doctors volunteer their time at the clinic that DeJongh and Rosenberg both stressed that there is a waiting list of physicians wishing to participate. While the clinic may need additional donations for medicine and facilities, he said that having enough volunteers is not a concern.
DeJongh said, "There are doctors who don’t want to give up their spots," adding that in the clinic’s infancy, around 30 medical professionals volunteered. Most of those people are still active volunteers with the clinic.
Rosenberg said that the compassion and love he sees the volunteers exhibit is humbling. "People forget to acknowledge the fine line between those of us living good lives and those living on the outside – there are a million different ways to end up on Skid Row."
He added that while it took time to develop relationships and trust with the patients, "the reason people keep coming back [to volunteer] is because it’s fun. The patients are wonderful, appreciative. They are truly a nice and gracious group."
DeJongh shares Rosenberg’s enthusiasm. "I’m just excited it’s taken on a life of its own and people who are in a situation … and who are homeless can count on it," she said, adding that she is both proud of and grateful for all the doctors and volunteers from the community who have worked to keep the clinic running and growing.
The St. Thomas clinic also serves a small number of patients from St. John, Aiken said. He added that clinic days are especially exciting for CCVI and Bethlehem House because on the second Saturday of each month, the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef provides cooked meals for Bethlehem House clients. Rotary II serves lunches at the shelter every Saturday, so clinic days are really a coordinated effort on the part of everyone, Aiken said.
St. Croix is working to establish a similar clinic with Lighthouse Mission, according to deJongh. While the project is still navigating bureaucratic and financial road bumps, the medical community on St. Croix is supportive and she said she is hopeful the clinic will be operational soon. The St. Croix clinic would also be largely supported through private donations.
The free clinic is located at Bethlehem House Shelter for the Homeless. It is open the second Saturday of each month. CCVI sends outreach workers out the two days before to remind clients of the clinic and to arrange transportation for clients from the East End, Smith Bay and St. John.
For more information on the clinic, including how to volunteer, contact Aiken at CCVI at 340-777-8518. Cash donations can be made out to the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, with “Free Clinic” noted in the memo line.