Every day, Jen Robinson works on the front lines with the homeless. A health worker at the Lincoln Community Health Center in Durham, she helps homeless people get the vital medical care they need. And she has insight into the issue in ways few of us do: As a child, she was frequently homeless and housing unstable. When she was 16, she moved from Las Vegas to Portland, Oregon, to stay with her older brother.

She got a job, and after a few years, she earned her GED and started at community college before transferring to Oregon State, where she graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history. She moved to Durham in 2010, after discovering the city on a road trip.

At the Healthcare for the Homeless Clinic, she helps homeless people who often use the emergency room to get primary care instead. While the overall goal is for the homeless person to have improved health, those benefits can also prompt other significant life changes. Many of Robinson’s clients are no longer homeless, and now have stable housing and health care.

Because of her outstanding service to the community, Robinson is the INDY‘s winner of the Steve Schewel/Duke Sanford School of Public Policy Award. We spoke with Robinson about her life and work. ­Lisa Sorg

INDY: There are many barriers to the homeless receiving adequate health care, both mental and physical: the bureaucracy of Medicaid or Medicare, the lack of stability that could make it more difficult to take medication. How have you helped people overcome those barriers?

Robinson: Knowing the resources in the community and who to ask for ideas are my best tools.

Medicaid has a special rule that I try to take advantage of for my clients. After they have accrued $2,000 in medical expenses, they are eligible for Medicaid for the rest of the year to help resolve the health issue. If more people knew about this rule, I think a lot of homelessness could be avoided, since a good portion of my clients became homeless after getting sick with no insurance.

For folks not disabled, or waiting for a decision, Durham has options that are especially accessible to the homeless population. The Lincoln Health Care for the Homeless Clinic provides primary and urgent care. Samaritan Health Center is the other Health Care for the Homeless Clinic in Durham and we collaborate a lot. Duke has a charity care program that allows people to access medical care at a cost more in line with their income.

Project Access of Durham County collects donations of specialist care that are then donated to those in need. They have made things like colonoscopies, MRIs, dialysis, physical therapy, wound care and orthopedics, to name a few, possible for my clients. They have recently also started to get a few dental appointments too, but this is a huge need in the community. We need more philanthropic dentists in Durham.

NC MedAssist is a Charlotte-based organization that mails medications free of charge to their recipients. The application process is really straightforward, and they will even mail to General Delivery so my unsheltered folks (those who don’t stay in the shelters) can get their meds.

Help the INDY help others

Each year, the INDY honors a local person whose work for a nonprofit significantly improves the lives of people in the Triangle. Winners must live in the Triangle, be under 35 and earn less than $35,000 a year.

Award winners are chosen from a pool of nominees nominated by their peers and coworkers. A committee of INDY employees, Duke Sanford School students and former award winnersthe 2013 honoree was Eric Olson-Getty, who mentors youth in YO:Durham and the Made in Durham projectselect finalists to interview. One finalist is then chosen as the winner.

This year, we honor Jen Robinson. Robinson will receive her award at the INDY‘s Give Guide launch party, Sunday, Nov. 9, from 3–8 p.m. at the Person Street Bar, 805 N. Person St., Raleigh.

The Give Guide is the INDY‘s annual philanthropic campaign that helps raise money for select local nonprofits. Sunday’s event is open to the public, and includes food trucks, live music and beer.

Many of the people you’ve helped now have stable housing and health care. How did that happened?

Each of the folks I’ve helped house have had to first get income, or have a sustainability plan for income within a few months. None of them have been able to work, so this income is from Social Security or disability.

Housing for New Hope has provided supportive housing for some of my clients and does a lot of good work to help house so many. Generally, getting housing through the Durham Housing Authority is unheard of.

Every organization working with the homeless is underfunded, and understaffed, but the lack of affordable housing in Durham locks so many people out of permanent housing. Credit and background checks, while understandable, can also make vulnerable populations extra exposed to exploitation from bad landlords, higher rent or they are limited to overpriced boarding houses.

If housing organizations had more funding and didn’t have to worry about it simply going away every year, I think that the level of support currently offered would make a huge difference in the long term wellness of their communities and individual residents.

Durham has a 10-year plan to end homelessness. What challengesfinancial, policyare there to meeting that goal?

While funding is always short, I think funding that is specific to support needs to be considered. Funding for case workers to make sure that folks don’t fall back into homelessness is key to a permanent solution. If someone has been homeless for the last 20 years, getting the hang of all of the tasks and responsibilities to maintain housing while keeping up with all of the other life changes, additional support will make the difference.

If a homeless person asks for money or help on the street, what should we do?

While there may be good intentions to asking and giving cash, sometimes good intentions falter. I made small cards that list where folks can get free meals, a shower, health care and shelter, all on the free bus route, in addition to the referral phone number for mental health care. However, this work always needs support, so give those dollars to an organization that does this work.

Would you mind telling readers the circumstances of your own homelessness? What lessons did you learn that you apply to your work in helping others?

While I was a lot younger than all of my clients when I experienced homelessness, it came down to some of the same reasons that bring a lot of folks to homelessness, domestic violence and mental illness. I was lucky enough to be born free from the cognitive disabilities that many of my homeless clients have to deal with. I was able to navigate the systems I needed to access educational programs and therapy to help me move forward. I don’t have to bear the burden of mental illness personally, and have always been able to hold down a job. I didn’t do anything that my clients haven’t tried their hardest to do, but I had advantages that had nothing to do with me. I try to remind myself of that every day and think if we all kept our advantages in mind it would help us be more patient.

This article appeared in print with the headline “The kindness of strangers”