SALT LAKE CITY — Allan D. Ainsworth, who over 23 years developed a medical home for the Salt Lake Valley's homeless population, used the occasion of his retirement from Fourth Street Clinic Wednesday to advocate for their future care.
"There are about 60 million people in the country with limited or no access to primary care providers," which has profound consequences for their longevity and quality of life, Ainsworth said.
"Without homes, people experience illnesses and injuries three to six times (more than) housed individuals, and they die an average of 30 years earlier," he said.
Health Care for Homeless organizations, such as Fourth Street Clinic, work to break this cycle, said Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon in a ceremony to honor Ainsworth and introduce his successor.
Ainsworth founded Fourth Street Clinic in 1988 through a federal program aimed at increasing affordable health care to homeless Utahns.
"If people have access to health care, we can get well and stay well and experience better care for themselves and their families," said Corroon.
That first year, the clinic employed a part-time nurse who relied heavily on hospitals for treatments. Fourth Street Clinic provided 6,200 client visits in its inaugural year.
Fourth Street Clinic, through a series of public and private partnerships, has evolved into a full-service primary care organization that includes behavioral health, specialty and pharmacy services. It serves some 5,300 homeless Utahns through 26,600 visits a year. The clinic employs 45 people and is supported by some 45 government grants a year.
Corroon credited Ainsworth and the Fourth Street Clinic as significant players in reducing Utah's rate of chronic homelessness by more than two-thirds.
"Fourth Street Clinic proves that homelessness doesn’t equate to hopelessness and that access to health care provides real solutions for real people," Corroon said.
As a parting gift, the clinic's administration offices were named for Ainsworth.
Ainsworth's successor, Kristy Chambers, was national director of affiliate financial consulting for Planned Parenthood Federation of American. She previously served on the clinic's board of directors.
A certified public accountant for more than 20 years, Chambers has held accounting and top-level management positions in real estate, retail and hospitality.
"Our patients not only get the care they need under one roof, they are treated as individuals, with dignity and respect. This is what health care should be and what we celebrate during National Health Center Week," Chambers said.
Chambers said the clinic's pediatric program has labored to respond to the sharp increase in homeless families with children in Utah, which spiked to 51 percent from 11 percent in 2007. The increase is attributed to the nation's economic downturn.
The pediatric program has expanded into a full-service family practice clinic, she said.
Chambers paid tribute to Ainsworth as "a pioneer in bringing much needed health care services to Salt Lake and then helping to shape the National Health Care for Homeless movement."
Ainsworth said, through extensive education efforts and the collaboration of public and private partners, Salt Lake's efforts on behalf of the homeless are "actually a national model how this should be done."
Rapid rehousing of the homeless was the key factor in reducing the state's rate of chronic homelessness by two-thirds. Once people are housed, it becomes easier to address issues such as unemployment, health care, education or substance abuse.
But it was difficult, early on, to convince various community partners that this approach was valid.
"I was pretty impatient, early on," Ainsworth said. "People didn't understand how homelessness was about. They thought if we created emergency shelters, that was a solution."
Over time — and with concerted education efforts by a number of partners — the community's vision shifted from temporary fix to long-term solutions.
"This is solvable. While we will always have people in poverty, people don't have to be without housing," he said.
Once someone has a place to call home, they can begin to address the issues that contributed to their homelessness, such as physical and mental illness.
"Lowering the barrier to access was critical," Ainsworth said of the Fourth Street Clinic.