William Walsh, MD, spends about 75 percent of his time as part of the facial trauma team at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC). He sees a lot of patients in pretty bad shape. “People are being assaulted on the streets,” he says. “When they come in to see me, their face may be in pieces.”
The facial trauma team does its work, repairs broken bones and lacerated skin and then …
“What’s the next step after the hospital?” he asks. “For patients experiencing homelessness, there isn’t one. The menu of options is pretty small.”
Often—too often—patients are being discharged back to where they came from, the streets. “There’s no one to take care of them at home, because they don’t have a home,” Walsh says. That means just getting regular meals may not happen, let alone special diets, wound care and a good night’s sleep.
Walsh’s frustration and the other part of his job—deputy chief innovation officer of Upstream Health Innovations, the innovation team for Hennepin Healthcare—made him want to find solutions to a problem he sees in front of him all the time.
Upstream’s approach uses human-centered design, meaning that the people and communities it serves are part of both framing problems and solving them. “We partner with the people most impacted by the work,” Walsh says.
As Walsh and his team began to look at homelessness, a pastor at First Covenant Church in Minneapolis told him he needed to talk to Street Voices of Change, an activist group of homeless and recently homeless people who meet in several downtown Minneapolis churches. Walsh and other members of Upstream Health started going to Street Voices meetings, a bit warily, wondering if they would be accepted. “We came with humility,” he says. In addition to attending Street Voices meetings, the Upstream Health team interviewed more than 100 people experiencing homelessness to learn about where they would want to live.
“For me, that’s when the project changed,” Walsh says. “It converted from research to action. Me, working as a physician, got us a little of the way solo, but I didn’t really know anything. The people in Street Voices are true experts about the situation of homelessness; their experiences are infused throughout this work.”
By Linda Picone | All Photos By Rich Ryan Photography