HER Saturday is Fresh Face of Women’s Health Initiative

Messages from participants about what they think of when they think about HER Saturday.

These days, if you wander into Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program’s headquarters on what used to be a quiet Saturday morning, the main lobby is buzzing with activity. Tables decked out in purple tablecloths offer health information and related giveaways. Women of all ages are chatting, sipping coffee, doing crafts, getting hand massages and acupuncture treatments, watching movies and playing a BINGO game that imparts lessons about women’s health between shouts of “BINGO!” Beyond the lobby, in exam rooms, women are seeing providers for their medical and behavioral health issues or case managers for any number of non-medical needs. It’s a health fair, coffee talk, crafting session and walk-in clinic, all rolled into one. Welcome to HER Saturday, the foundation of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program’s Women’s Health Initiative. HER stands for Health. Empowerment. Resources.

Creating a women-only space

“We wanted to create a women’s only space — a safe and welcoming place for women to come off the streets, relax, learn about their health and get services that they may be reluctant to access during the week when our building is a lot busier,” said BHCHP Associate Medical Director Melinda Thomas, who is heading up BHCHP’s multi-pronged Women’s Health Initiative. The vast majority of homeless women have experienced unspeakable trauma at some point in their lives, explained Thomas, and a loud, bustling clinic setting can be upsetting to some. HER Saturday seeks to forge clinical relationships with women who might otherwise avoid seeing healthcare providers. Our expert and compassionate clinicians provide what’s called “trauma- informed care” — treatment that recognizes and responds to the trauma that patients have experienced and avoids re-triggering them.

We launched HER Saturday on Valentine’s Day and although we knew there was a need for a safe, separate space for women, it has exceeded all our expectations. Between 40 and 60 women show up each week to participate in one of our many activities and a good portion of them are taking advantage of the walk-in clinic. "I'm newly homeless, and I love coming here because it provides stress-relieving things that I can't get anywhere else I've gone,” commented Rita, who has become a HER Saturday regular. In addition to BHCHP staff and fellows, five dedicated volunteers keep HER Saturday humming.

BHCHP staff at HER Saturday
BHCHP staff at HER Saturday

Health challenges of homeless women

About one third of BHCHP’s patients are female. Compared to women in the general population, women experiencing homelessness are far less likely to seek preventive care like regular mammograms and PAP smears, putting them at greater risk for advanced breast and cervical cancer. Increasing those screening rates is one of several goals of the Women’s Health Initiative, driven by a multi-disciplinary group of BHCHP staff who meet monthly. The group is also exploring ways to better support non-English speaking patients as well as those experiencing domestic and sexual violence. 

While HER Saturday is relatively new, BHCHP has always placed a very high priority on women’s health and for many years, we have run women’s-only clinics at Rosie’s Place, Woods-Mullen shelter, Pine Street Inn and most recently, at St. Anthony’s Shrine in downtown Boston. Our Family Team is also very engaged in women’s health in our clinics at family and motel shelters, like St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children, EMPath and other programs. HER Saturday Clinic Coordinator Zoe Burns said it’s been especially gratifying to welcome women to the HER Saturday sessions who have never shown up at one of BHCHP’s other clinics. “The environment at HER Saturday feels really positive,” said Burns. “We really are building a community.”

 

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