Pharmacy researcher’s quest to help homeless during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the integral connection between homelessness and health. To guard against an outbreak among the homeless population, several Spokane shelters have put limits on the number of people admitted to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Ultimately, many of those experiencing homelessness in Spokane have had to find alternative places for shelter.

“A lot of individuals carry their life around with them—two to three shopping carts full of their stuff, multiple backpacks, and move from one place to another. Police crackdown on camping and these individuals can’t go to shelters because of COVID—and can’t camp because there are no camping zones, so where can they go?” said Sorosh Kherghehpoush , research fellow at the WSU College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences who has dedicated his career to studying the impact pharmacists can have on vulnerable populations, especially individuals experiencing homelessness.

Sorosh Kherghehpoush standing next to the Washington State University mobile health care unit. The unit goes to underserved communities in eastern Washington to do health check ups. In recent weeks, the mobile unit has been administering COVID-19 testing.

Kherghehpoush  has always had a passion to help people experiencing homelessness. Working with faculty from the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, outreach workers from Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners (SNAP) and the Spokane Regional Health District, Kherghehpoush  and the team go out to various locations in the county to give personal hygiene packages and do routine health checks. Tucked away from the public’s eyes, these health care workers go to various encampments climbing through breaks in chain-link fences, under bridges and along the Spokane River to offer clean socks, sack lunches, and do a health check to ensure no one is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or other health issues.

“We’ve noticed, there’s huge mental health and substance abuse problems. With the fear of corona virus and lack of stable housing, the situation is much worse now than before. It’s an opportune time to make an impact,” said Kherghehpoush .

Spokane County health officials have stated that an outbreak among the homeless population is one of their greatest concerns. Health is already exacerbated as result of homelessness. This is why Kherghehpoush  is looking to involve student pharmacists in the outreach through an elective to administer direct patient care with high-risk populations. He hopes to teach student pharmacists on how to work with people experiencing homelessness so that they don’t have inherent biases or a predetermined outlook for individual patients.

When you don’t treat these individuals like they’re a human being—it deters them from seeking care and exacerbates the condition that they are already in.

“It’s a stigma. These individuals are seen as a lesser human. Growing up I never saw this in Iran. It opened my eyes. People avoid them. They have increased risk for disease—malnourishment, violence, and always have stuff stolen. It directly affects their health,” said Kherghehpoush . “When you don’t treat these individuals like they’re a human being—it deters them from seeking care and exacerbates the condition that they are already in.”

Kherghehpoush  continues to do what he can along with the team of community volunteers who comb the various encampments in the city.  He hopes to educate more student pharmacists around the health issues that face those experiencing homelessness. Kherghehpoush, along with colleagues at the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine are administering COVID-19 tests via the Range Health mobile unit to surrounding areas in eastern Washington amid rising cases in the region.