Hub nonprofit brings health care to needy, underserved
Kathryn Hall | 6/5/2009, 7:15 a.m.
For many Bostonians in need of health services, gaining access to care can become more difficult in the bitter cold of winter. It can be even more challenging for those who live on the margins of our society — the homeless, the addicted, the disabled and others whose conditions may require special attention.
These are the folks that Douglas Brooks and his colleagues at JRI Health seek out.
Brooks is the vice president of health services for JRI Health, a division of the nonprofit Justice Resource Institute. For more than three decades, the parent organization has partnered with Massachusetts governmental and social agencies to offer human services to a variety of historically underserved and at-risk populations.
The advent of HIV/AIDS led the institute to create JRI Health in 1991 as a means of expanding its focus to more complex public health issues. Today, under Brooks’ leadership, JRI Health is still targeting those in greatest need, working with a mandate “to figure out a way to serve the folks that can’t get served elsewhere.”
“We have developed a model of care over time that we believe really works,” said Brooks, also the executive director of JRI Health’s Sidney Borum Jr. Health Center on Boylston Street.
In its first year, JRI Health opened River Street Community, which provides housing in Mattapan for people living with HIV — many of whom are also living with other disabilities, addiction or mental illness. Three years later, the organization established the Borum health center, which provides a full range of primary care, mental health and substance abuse counseling, HIV counseling and testing, and risk reduction to young people between the ages of 13 and 29.
Today, JRI Health’s services have expanded to include the Boston GLASS Community Center, a drop-in support center for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth; peer support services for people living with HIV; and the Center for Training and Professional Development, which offers training and technical assistance for other organizations doing grassroots work in the community, including the Women of Color AIDS Council and the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, both based in Dorchester.
According to Brooks, the broad array of services evolved from JRI Health’s unique approach to health care, an approach to delivering services he describes as “less rigid” than some other providers.
“For instance, at the Borum we have open access. People can come in and get an appointment on the same day,” said Brooks. “If they come in late for their appointment we don’t kick them out. If they come in using [drugs] or if they are high, the only thing we require is that they not be disruptive or harmful; they can’t cause harm to themselves or to others. We’ll see them.”
Two recent grants, totaling $200,000 in funding, offer a strong endorsement of the agency’s effectiveness.
The two grants — one from the state Department of Public Health’s HIV/AIDS Bureau, the other from biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences Inc. — are intended to support efforts to develop education and leadership among African American men in response to the alarming and growing rate of HIV/AIDS infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people of color represent only 12 percent of the population of the United States, but account for a staggering 50 percent of all new HIV/AIDS infections.
Brooks said that JRI Health is working toward making inroads into local African American male social networks and forums, with the intention to begin a dialogue about HIV/AIDS, the risk factors associated with the disease, and the importance of testing.
In a time when communities of color are falling silent prey to the ravages of HIV/AIDS, homelessness and other afflictions, it is heartening to know that there are places where those on the margins can receive care.
“JRI Health is an invaluable resource and consistently a committed partner in helping us reach those who are most vulnerable in the city of Boston,” said Dr. Nancy Norman, medical director for the Boston Public Health Commission.