Rhie Morris said she slept outside a medical facility when she was homeless to make sure she didn’t miss an appointment for a stomachache. But after she missed the appointment and scheduled another one, she said she was not treated like a regular patient because she was homeless.
“You just get looked through,” Morris said. “You are viewed as being a drug seeker. That is the first impression people get of you, meanwhile you are in agony or are very sick. You are treated as less than a person.”
Morris is now a coordinator at LifeWorks for the Austin Youth Collective, a nonprofit organization that provides aid to 18- to 29-year-old people experiencing homelessness and housing instability. She said she is working with the Dell Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry to create “Voices from the Street,” an oral storytelling website designed to teach medical students about the experience of homelessness.
Project manager Kathryn Flowers said she and her project team interviewed seven people who experienced homelessness in their youth to get a better understanding of homelessness. She said speakers in her class on understanding homelessness shared their experiences with her students and inspired her to create the project.
“Storytelling is a deep-seated part of the human experience,” said Flowers, program administrator for the Integrated Behavioral Health Scholars program. “The heart of the tool is understanding what one person’s experience in life has been.”
Flowers said the city of Austin Open Data Portal and the Dell Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry will link to the website in February. She said the website is organized into videos that deal with different subjects, including mental health, medical care and transportation.
“You see someone panhandling on the corner, and you look away because it makes you uncomfortable,” Flowers said. “It’s a very common response, but I have learned through the process of talking to them just how dehumanizing that is for people. They said they feel that there is something so awful about them that their fellow human can’t even look at them.”
Geography sophomore Uma Riddle said she has worked with many people experiencing homelessness through the University United Methodist Church. She said she hopes the website might help clear the misconceptions about homelessness.
“A lot of people don’t know how to interact with people going through homelessness,” Riddle said. “Being friendly and acknowledging someone makes a big difference, but I don’t think people really understand that.”
Morris said she also hopes this change in perspective influences the way people interact with others, especially medical students who might treat someone experiencing homelessness in the future.
“Maybe hearing a story like this stays in the back of their mind,” Morris said. “One day, when they are servicing a person who maybe doesn’t smell too great or has ratty clothes and lives out of the backpack they are carrying, they might stop to think, ‘This is a person. I should make sure to treat them right.’”