Helping Hands founder delivers aid, respect to homeless

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Apr 21, 2014 in Rat News | Subscribe

Though the location has changed a handful of times, the mission of helping the homeless has remained the same for nearly 25 years.

“So many times, you see these individuals somewhere and people will just pass by — they don’t want to make eye contact, they don’t want to think about it,” Stacey said. “I think the importance of recognizing them as human beings, and trying to meet their needs, is important.”

Each Monday and Thursday, Stacey and his group of volunteers mill about the crowd of people outside the two-story green house at 509 NE First St., which is owned by the adjacent First United Methodist Church.

They chat with those waiting for assistance from the volunteer nurse practitioners, physicians and other health care workers providing medical care.

Stacey said about 2,000 homeless people live in Gainesville, and according to the Helping Hands website, the program had 4,028 visits in 2013 and more than 18,500 since it opened in October 1989.

Meeting needs and providing care is in Stacey’s blood.

He is 62, with close-cropped gray hair and round, brown eyes that point to the floor when he speaks humbly about his life’s work.

Back when the clinic was just an idea, Stacey was a social worker who specialized in veterans’ care. After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin and a master’s from Loyola University, he dove into veteran social work in Illinois.

In 1979, he transferred to Gainesville to work with the Veterans Administration.

Stacey and other VA medical employees wanted to start providing health care to the homeless. With his nurse practitioner wife, Cynthia, and about six other volunteers in tow, he founded Helping Hands.

The program is supported in part by the Alachua County Commission and is funded entirely by grants, donations and fundraisers.

After years of witnessing the homeless walk in and out of his doors, Stacey said he has learned that even though the need for health care is great, what the patients really want is someone to acknowledge them.

“They have a lot of aches and pains they complain about, but a lot of it is just sitting down and talking with someone,” he said. “It’s the attention they need. They just want someone to listen and recognize them.”

While no major medical procedures take place at the clinic, patients are seen for such ailments as respiratory infections, high blood pressure and diabetes. Acupuncture and psychiatric care also are offered, but Stacey says many times people just come for a shower and a fresh change of clothes.

Running a program for the people who are typically ignored and stigmatized by society can be discouraging, Stacey said, and the most frustrating aspect is when he witnesses his patients cycle through addictions and end up exactly where they left off — or in some cases, worse.

“The one woman I think about lived with her mother in Hawthorne for a while,” he said. “She was looking so good and sober and clean and then, sure enough, a few months later, you’d see her and she was back to it. She was murdered downtown three years ago.”

Men and women have separate clinic days. The men get medical attention on Mondays, while the women see doctors and nurses on Thursdays.

In the past five months, some of the homeless women have begun volunteering at the clinic. For Stacey, seeing the women volunteer is more than rewarding.

“Did I ever get to the point where I wanted to give up?’’ he said. “No, because you get to see this other side of it. These women are taking ownership of the program, and to see the improvement in their self-image — in how they’re feeling about themselves — that’s what keeps me going.”

One of the women, Candy, has been coming to the clinic since 2002. She used to live in a car and wear her pet rats on her shoulder for protection from homeless men.

In the time Candy has been helping at the clinic, she said, Stacey has been “amazing” to her and everyone else who sees him.

“Oh man, if it weren’t for him and this clinic, there would be a lot of homeless people out there that would have truly crappy health care,” she said. “He treats us with courtesy and respect — and that’s big, that’s really big.’’

Over the years, encouragement from Stacey’s wife has kept his passion alive, despite setbacks.

“There were Mondays where I’d say, ‘Gee, how long do we really want to keep doing this?’ and she’d look at me and say, ‘Oh, come on, we gotta keep going.’ ”

The Staceys’ dedication has kept volunteers such as Brendan Shortley, the clinic’s manager, in the program. Shortley has been at the clinic for almost 21 years, and he credits it all to the couple.

“He and his wife saw a need, and they didn’t just talk about it, they did something about it,” Shortley said. “That’s what has kept me here so long. The need is here. The population is here.”

Stacey said he knows the homeless population in Gainesville will never disappear. Still, he’s dedicating his life and time to do what most will not.

“Unfortunately, I think we’ll always have the problem. It’s what you do to make a dent in it that helps make all the difference,’’ he said.

“They’re human beings,’’ Stacey said. “You’ve got to give people a chance and then a second chance.’’

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