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Meet the team that delivers health care to homeless patients on the streets of Phoenix

By Kathy Ritchie
Published: Monday, March 11, 2024 - 4:46am
Updated: Thursday, April 4, 2024 - 5:09pm

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Coverage of aging is supported in part by AARP Arizona

Circle the City mobile health care van for homeless patients
Tim Agne/KJZZ
Circle the City’s mobile unit provides primary care to unhoused patients at Burnidge Soup Kitchen near 35th Avenue and Osborn in Phoenix on Feb. 20, 2024.

Perla Puebla and her team are at the Burnidge Soup Kitchen near 35th Avenue and Osborn Road in Phoenix. Hair pulled back and wearing dark blue scrubs, Puebla is huddled next to one of her colleagues as she stares into her laptop. 

“Who am I seeing next, Brenda?” she asks.

“Joe, but I haven’t taken his vitals yet,” her colleague responds.

Puebla is the associate medical director of street medicine with Circle the City, a nonprofit organization that provides mobile health care to unhoused individuals around the Valley

“Every day is different,” she says. “Today we’re at the soup kitchen. So we’re seeing patients that are coming here for breakfast.”

The team arrived a few hours earlier. When they’re not here, they’re driving around the city delivering health care to people in parks, street corners or alleys.

Medical professional checking heartbeat of homeless patient with a stethoscope
Tim Agne/KJZZ
Circle the City Associate Medical Director of Street Medicine Perla Puebla checks vital signs for Joe, 62.

Caring for the most vulnerable

On this day, she says, “We have seen a patient with diabetes; a patient needing medication refills; we’ve seen a patient with constipation, high blood pressure. Yesterday, we saw several wounds and skin infections.”

Which often occur from sleeping outside.

“They get bites from insects, and they start scratching those and those can turn into infections and abscesses and cellulitis. It’s pretty painful.”

They also support patients struggling with their mental health.

“We see a lot of depression, anxiety, severe mental illness. … We have a behavioral health specialist with us; she helps with that. We do refill medications for depression, anxiety.”

Medical professional examining homeless patient
Tim Agne/KJZZ
Perla Puebla examines Joe’s ears with an otoscope.

Meet Joe

Next up is 62-year-old Joe. He didn’t want to share his full name. Joe tells Puebla his shoulder hurts from sleeping on the concrete. 

“Does it hurt when I touch the shoulder?” asks Puebla. “Right here?”

“Yeah.”

“Can I see — OK, how about the other one? Can I see the other one?”

Next, she takes her otoscope and looks inside his ears. Then she examines his puffy left eye. Joe tells Puebla he was shot by a paintball a few weeks ago.

Puebla then heads back to the van. She’s looking for an extra blanket to give to Joe so he can cushion his shoulder when he sleeps. 

“All right, Joe, I got you this blanket for you and the hygiene kit. I’m gonna put some Tylenol in here in case you need it. And then Maritza is going to come over here and see if you’re interested in a housing assessment,” explains Puebla.

“I think I’m gonna pass,” says Joe.

“You don’t want to do that? OK.”

Medical professional discussing options with homeless patient
Tim Agne/KJZZ
Maritza Arias (left) discusses options with a patient.

Lost trust and a broken system

It’s not a surprising response, explains Maritza Arias, a behavioral health consultant with Circle the City.

“You know, sometimes, a lot of the older folk have been out here for so long, it’s kind of what they’re used to, and they don’t want to be housed,” says Arias.

There’s something else, too. Something deeper.

“I think the individual’s ability to even trust — trust the system. It could be the system has failed them for so long,” she explains. “So we’ve seen Joe quite a bit here at this particular soup kitchen. And I’ve seen him probably about four or five times, and every single time, he’s declined housing.”

After more than two years on the street, that seems to sum up where Joe is in life.

“I don’t want to be dependent,” he says. “Rely on them all the time? [I’ve got to] learn how to spread my wings. Sleep on Mother Earth.”

After that, Joe sets off to who knows where. As things wind down, Puebla is typing in the last of her notes. The team is giving a patient who missed her bus a lift back to the Central Arizona Shelter Services, the largest mass shelter in Maricopa County.

“And then we’ll probably make a stop at Townsend Park, downtown area. We have a few follow ups seeing if we can find some people there for wound care and high blood pressure,” Puebla says.

It’s also a chance to connect with new patients — to hand out water or hygiene kits and provide information about housing or nearby shelters.

Medical professional supplying a homeless patient with blankets and a large Ziploc bag of supplies
Tim Agne/KJZZ
Perla Puebla supplies Joe with blankets and a hospitality kit at the end of his visit.

Circle the City needs hygiene kits, and you can help

Circle the City’s “Kindness Kits” are assembled and donated by volunteers. You can help by collecting the following items:

  • gallon sized Ziploc bag
  • 16oz bottles of water
  • soft, easy-to-chew snack bar
  • travel size hand sanitizer
  • travel size deodorant
  • travel size toothpaste
  • toothbrush
  • travel size sunscreen
  • travel size bottle of body wash or shower gel
  • 1 pair socks, adult size 8 and up
  • Chapstick
  • handwritten note of encouragement

Additionally, kits may include pads and tampons to help during periods.

Close up of a medical professional sitting with a homeless patient outside a mobile health care van
Tim Agne/KJZZ
Maritza Arias (left) sits and talks with a patient next to the van.

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