health

Medical van treats acute and chronic illnesses in hundreds of rough sleepers across Sydney

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a person holding a dog: Julie White has been happy to be treated at the medical van. (ABC News: Lydia Feng)

Julie White has been happy to be treated at the medical van.

Julie White has spent the last two years sleeping rough on the streets of Sydney. 

Despite developing a sharp pain near her stomach, the 49-year-old admits she’s been afraid to get treated. 

“It’s hard to get me to a GP because I’m scared of them,” she said.   

“Also I don’t like the waiting, going in and waiting it just takes so long,” she added.

But when a red medical van pulls up to the curb in Woolloomooloo on a Tuesday night she’s eager to meet the medical staff inside. 

Within minutes, Julie is seated beside a doctor and getting a health check-up for the first time in years.

“It’s good coming here … it makes people feel more at ease,” she said. 

“There are lots of friendly faces and they look after you.” 

Julie is one of many rough sleepers benefiting from a new initiative called Street Side Medics.

Founded by Daniel Nour, a 26-year-old resident at Royal North Shore Hospital, the customised mobile medical clinic for Sydney’s homeless is taking healthcare to the streets.

“There are a number of barriers which limit access to healthcare for people experiencing homelessness including a lack of transportation, costs or the need for identification but also stigma and embarrassment,” he said.  

“The only way to really overcome those barriers is to take the service to them.” 

So last year he fitted out a van with all the equipment needed to run a medical clinic on wheels.

Each week a team of volunteer GPs and nurses visit four sites across the city — Parramatta, Woolloomooloo, Manly, and Brookvale — and provides on-the-spot services such as blood tests, vaccines, and COVID swabs to help some of the city’s most vulnerable people.  

Siama Majeed, a general practitioner, and Street Side Medics volunteer, said it was no surprise they often treat patients with illnesses that have gone unchecked for years. 

"Sometimes they're sleeping rough in the park, sometimes they're on very long waiting lists for housing commission accommodation so they're more thinking about where their next meal is going to come from. They're not thinking about the brewing infection on their foot or their finger." 

The team has helped treat hundreds of patients with both acute and chronic illnesses, Dr. Majeed said.

“It might be as simple as getting someone’s blood pressure down and saving them from a stroke, getting someone’s diabetes under control, saving an amputation down the line — every intervention, every encounter counts.”

A crucial element of the service is it’s free of charge without the need for Medicare details or ID. 

“We have a no-turn-away policy. Anyone who comes to us no matter who or from where or what their status is, we are more than happy to see them,” Dr. Nour said.  

“It reaffirms to the people we are treating we are really not here to get any money … when they realise that we genuinely want to care and that’s our primary focus, they trust us.” 

As of February, there were more than 270 people sleeping rough in the City of Sydney area.

Mission Australia Western Sydney area manager Julie Jasprizza-Laus said the innovative service ensures people sleeping on the streets “feel like they are being seen”. 

But she also believes the long-term solution to ensure rough sleepers stay healthy and safe is to provide them with permanent homes. 

“If people have a stable roof over their head then you can start to focus on the bigger things,” she said. 

“The hardest thing to find at this point is affordable accommodation.”

For now, Street Side Medics is at least providing easy access to medical care.  

Julie said she’ll be regularly visiting the van.  

“It’s good for the homeless and people who don’t go see GPs and I bet it saves a lot of lives too. 

“Straight up, it’s unreal. They should have more of it.”

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