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Advocating for the Health Care Needs of Homeless Youth

Thanks to work done by Lisa Stambolis and the organization Health Care for the Homeless, Inc., homeless youth in the Maryland area have made headway on serious regulatory issues preventing the care of minors without homes.

Lisa Stambolis is being honored as a Champion of Change for her work to combat homelessness among children and youth.

I’m humbled to be recognized as a White House Champion of Change. I am deeply thankful for the acknowledgement. I am honored to work side by side with the youth of Baltimore City. They inspire me to do my best every day. My work with homeless youth, children and their families is both a privilege and a responsibility. The privilege is in serving, for which the rewards are endless, and the responsibility is advocating on their behalf.

Most nurses work in hospitals, and so did I for my first five years as a pediatric nurse. I quickly realized that I wanted to expand my work beyond the hospital walls and in 1993, after earning my graduate degree to become a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner I worked with Health Care for the Homeless, Inc. (HCH). This was my first taste of real public health nursing and I was hooked. I spent the next four years absorbing the issues of poverty and health and witnessing firsthand their mutual side effects.

In 1998, I left HCH to work with the Baltimore City Health Department’s School Based Centers. I spent the next 12 years in a busy and underserved inner city high school clinic. There was no typical day inside the corridors of high school. My days revolved around tending to the unexpected emergencies, the broken bones, injuries from assaults and sports, acute asthma exacerbations, and routine things such as physicals for sports participation, reproductive health and acute and minor health issues. These were my formative years, where I “cut my teeth” learning about the hard lives of Baltimore City youth.

In 2010, I jumped at the opportunity to be the first Director of Pediatrics at HCH in Baltimore. For the first time in its 25 year history, HCH added a dedicated onsite pediatric/adolescent clinic. Armed with my experience caring for homeless children and my 12 years with the health department, I was perfectly poised for the challenge. I had three important goals coming in: (1) Create a successful clinic-outreach model for homeless children and youth, (2) Sound the alarm that homeless youth were falling through the cracks, (3) Build partnerships with other youth homeless service providers.

I’m proud of our success on all fronts. Since we opened our clinic doors nearly half of all our on-site visits have been by youth between the ages of 14-21 years old. We’ve expanded our outreach sites to include the only 2 emergency homeless shelters exclusively serving youth in Baltimore. Our clinicians are involved in local coalitions and advocacy groups working with homeless youth and we have given numerous presentations to increase awareness of the plight of homeless youth.

One of the most important things I’ve been involved with is not as a clinician but as an advocate. As a clinician, I had experienced the barriers to providing care to homeless youth. In Maryland, minors were not allowed to consent to medical treatment. This was a major barrier for homeless youth in their ability to access health care, and as an advocate I knew we had to change the law. Under the direction of our Health Policy team at HCH we spearheaded the movement to do just this. I had the opportunity to testify side-by-side with many of the homeless youth I serve. We spent many days telling our compelling stories to the General Assembly in hopes they would pass our bill. It was often frustrating and confusing, and it was a world they and I knew little about. But we persevered, and this past May the Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, signed into law the youth consent bill that will now allow unaccompanied youth (youth without a parent or legal guardian) in Maryland the right to consent to medical treatment. I might still be a “reluctant advocate” but I can see now that it’s all part of being a public health nurse. And I’m still hooked.

Lisa Stambolis is Director of Pediatric and Adolescent Health at Health Care for the Homeless, Inc.