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Human Resources and leaders get lessons about Nashville’s homeless population


In 2016, the number of homeless individuals in Nashville increased by 17.6 percent — the fourth-largest increase in the country. Thankfully, there are people and programs, such as Sheryl Fleisch, M.D., director of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Homeless Health Services Program, and the VUMC Street Psychiatry Program she launched in 2014. Fleisch’s team works to reduce the hospital admittance rate of homeless individuals by offering medical and psychiatric services in homeless encampments. The Homeless Health Services Program — the first of its kind in the nation — also employs a homeless housing navigator to help patients secure Section 8 vouchers that can otherwise take months or years to obtain. 

During a lecture, sponsored by the VUMC Human Resources Diversity and Inclusion Council, Fleisch explained to the human resources team and leaders from across the medical center that the term “homeless” can have a broader real-world definition.

“Specifically, homeless are families or individuals who lack a fixed place to live,” she said. “But homeless persons are also those people who are ‘doubling up’ or ‘couch surfing’ or those people who are living eight to 10 deep in a one-bedroom apartment. Couch surfing accounts for 1-2 percent of the population, and there are 3.5 million people in the United States who experience homelessness each year.” 

Fleisch said Medical Center employees can help by being aware of the barriers to health care faced by the homeless population — including lack of documentation, lack of transportation, difficulty adhering to treatment regimens, insufficient finances and distrust. 

Fleisch also acknowledged the fact that VUMC employs homeless individuals and encouraged HR professionals to listen and watch for verbal cues in order to point affected employees to services and organizations where they can get help.

“Some of the catchphrases are when the person either is pretty vague about where they're staying, or they say that they're staying at a friend's house. So, whenever somebody tells me that they're staying at a friend's house, I always ask them a little bit more information. I always ask how they know the friend or how long they've been staying with this friend. Then I usually ask them where they were staying before they were staying with this friend,” she said.

Fleisch said this helps establish a homelessness history and can lead to additional information that will help direct that employee to the best resources. Some of the resources available to VUMC employees include:

  • Employee Assistance Program
  • Employee lockers
  • Use of showers
  • Free public transit (with ID)
  • Emergency funds available (through EAP in times of crisis)
  • Metro Social Services
  • 2-1-1