Doctor Ensures Health Care, Compassion and Spiritual Support for L.A.’s Homeless
President and CEO of Los Angeles Christian Health Centers (LACHC) since 2013, Dr. Lisa Abdishoo oversees a staff of 150 medical professionals plus nearly 100 volunteers per year for over 10,000 patients annually. Lisa takes pride in the fact that LACHC may be the only place where the homeless are treated with dignity as well as find judgment-free care and inspiration.
Patients receive comprehensive medical and dental care, mental health and substance use treatment, social work services, including housing navigation, optometric care, and pharmacy services. There are two full-time clinics, plus 12 part-time satellites sites located inside of shelters, mental health agencies, public housing, schools, and churches. LACHC is also part of three multi-disciplinary, multi-agency street medicine teams that are working throughout LA, engaging with some of the most vulnerable individuals who aren’t necessarily making it through the doors of their clinics.
I first stepped in the door at Los Angeles Christian Health Centers – Joshua House Clinic in 1997 while I was still doing my internal medicine residency at Cedars Sinai. It was one of our outpatient rotation sites, so I was given the address of this clinic in Skid Row, and showed up there on my first day, not knowing what to expect. I was struck by the suffering on the streets and the tremendous juxtaposition with what was going on inside the walls. Inside, there was this handful of very caring staff who were filled with passion about delivering high quality, non-judgmental care to body, mind, and spirit. The more I came back to the clinic, the more I found it compelling. I saw how few options the people in this community had for healthcare. And I was blown away by how the health care we were delivering was very directly helping people get out of homelessness. A couple years later, just as I was finishing my residency program, the clinic received a grant to hire their first staff physician / Medical Director. The timing was perfect, and I knew God was making a way to be where he wanted me to be. I took the job, and 20 years later, and I’m still here!
I think we have a special ability to meet people where they are at on their journey. As a medical clinic that combines so many different services, it’s a “no wrong door “approach. A lot of times, what brings someone in is pain in a tooth, and maybe at that point they don’t have an interest in getting any other services. But in caring for that person over time, gradually they may become more open, may trust us more, and may be more ready to receive other types of care. That might mean getting back on their treatments for diabetes or HIV or seeing a therapist or seeing a case manager to work on getting into housing.
I would also say that our mission—“to show God’s love by providing quality, comprehensive health care services to the homeless and underserved”—is pretty unique. And we do our best to live it out. The feedback that I most love hearing from other agencies is that, when they send patients to us, they come back saying that we didn’t treat them like “addicts” or as though being homeless made them somehow different from anyone else. We don’t require our patients to be Christian or to participate in religious services, but faith in Christ pervades what we do, and we see the face of Christ in those we care for. And that seems to make a big difference.
3. Have you noticed an increase in the homeless population?
The number of people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles has been rising at a pretty alarming rate. Last year the counts showed a 23 percent increase and that definitely reflects what we are seeing in our clinics. This is one of the reasons why we are working so hard to expand our services. In fact, we are in construction on a new building to replace our main clinic, with a new building opening in the Fall of 2019. The new Joshua House will be a 25,000 sq ft 3-story clinic that will also include four floors of permanent supportive housing located above the clinic (separately owned by our partner, the Skid Row Housing Trust). We are excited about how the new space will allow us to serve about 2000 more patients every year, and we think it will totally transform the patient experience by providing that is beautiful, dignified, and filled with hope.
4. Can you tell us about some of the people you have helped?
Each of our patients has a story that usually involves trauma, pain, and hopelessness, but in that same person’s story is also found resilience and a turning point where they find hope, and things begin to change. It’s not always a linear progression, and in fact, like any journey of recovery, there may be multiple setbacks and multiple turning points. But there is always hope.
We have a patient, Denise, who after her abusive marriage fell apart, ended up homeless and addicted to crack cocaine. Ultimately, about 25 years ago, she landed on Skid Row. She spent many years on and off the streets but found out about our clinic and started coming to see us. She would go in and out of rehab programs, but during both good and bad times, she used our clinic as an anchor, and she knew she could come whether she was doing well or whether she had relapsed. We would treat her for her asthma, her heart disease, anxiety, and a host of other problems. Often she would ask us to pray for her—which we did–and visits would end with hugs and sometimes tears. She had a lot of medical issues and a lot of fears about her health, but getting medical care and taking care of her body helped her find hope. Little by little, recovery came. Today, she has been clean and sober for several years. She is stably housed and is an advocate helping others in the community.
5. How can others become involved?
Everyone can find a way to get involved, and in fact, we definitely need everybody! Giving financial support to clinics like ours or to other social service agencies in our community is a great way to help. All of us run with very tight budgets, and the number of people we can help is directly tied to the dollars coming in the door. Another great way to get involved is through volunteering. We have a huge need for volunteer doctors, nurses, pharmacists and many others. But we also need administrative volunteers and people to help with special events, so you don’t have to be a medical professional to volunteer.
Finally, I would say that even if you aren’t in a position to donate financially or through volunteering your time, you can be an advocate for social justice and an end to disparities. Come and take a tour of our health center or another agency on Skid Row, and learn about the issues so that you can add your voice on behalf of people who are homeless in your community. Attend city council meetings in the district where you live to support the construction of homeless services facilities, affordable housing, and especially permanent supportive housing in your community.
For more information about Los Angeles Christian Health Centers, go to www.lachc.com/.