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Seattle Unveils Primary Care Clinic On Wheels To Help The Homeless

Bellamy Pailthorp
Seattle's new mobile medical unit, parked in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood on July 7th, 2016.

Seattle has a new tool in its campaign to fight homelessness. The city has unveiled a mobile health care clinicthat aims to meet people where they are and keep them from falling through any cracks in the system.   

The mobile unit is housed inside a 39-foot RV that parks regularly outside food banks, tent cities or community centers.  It includes an exam room with a dispensary, a nurse’s station and waiting room. Alicia Benish, who manages the program for King County Public Health, says it’s basically a mini primary care clinic, on wheels.

“It’s really a space where someone can come in for anything you would take to a normal doctor and be seen,” she said.

But she says a visit with a doctor here for something simple like a wound or a skin rash can easily become a springboard for addressing more complex problems.

“We have two social workers right here that can engage with a doctor. So there’s no setting up a second appointment,” Benish said.

The social workers can provide help with things like addiction or mental health concerns, as well as with navigating options for finding housing or getting a patient enrolled in Medicaid. The care is free and available only to homeless or recently homeless people.

This month, every other Wednesday, the new van has hours outside St John’s Lutheran Church in the Phinney neighborhood.  A man who goes by the name Taylor said he’s used it for everything from treating his high blood pressure to getting his asthma inhaler replaced.               

“I was surprised my first time because I really liked it. It takes away the long wait at the doctor’s office,” he said, adding that they allow you to sign up for appointments in advance or just drop in.  “It’s very convenient because it also comes to where I live. The people are very professional and they’re very generous and kind to the patients that they see.”

He said he recommends it to others in his community. And others who provide for the homeless like it too.

Lee Harper, executive director of the Phinney Neighborhood Association, which hosts meals for the homeless three times a week at St John's Lutheran Church, says they often see the needs the people have -  for health care and other services.

"This is going to be fantastic for us to be able to refer people, not to somewhere downtown, not to give them a piece of paper, but to say say, ‘Hey, walk outside and get some services — today, right now.’”

Seattle’s mobile clinic joins one in South King County that has been serving approximately 850 people per year. The new van is expected to double the number of homeless served by the program.

The operating budget for the new van is $610,000, with $500,000 funded by Seattle’s homeless state of emergency initiative; King County will pay $110,000 this year. A federal grant to King County covered the $350,000 in capital costs needed to procure the vehicle and outfit it as a mobile clinic.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to