Wayne State students providing medical services for Detroit’s growing homeless population


Shane Ersland


A student-run organization at Wayne State University (WSU) is working to help Detroit’s homeless population gain access to needed quality medical care.


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Nearly 1,700 people were experiencing homelessness in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park in January 2022, according to a point-in-time count conducted by the Detroit Continuum of Care, the Homeless Action Network of Detroit, and the city of Detroit. That represented an 18 percent increase from 2021.

Fourth-year WSU medical student Nedda Elewa is president of Street Medicine Detroit, which conducts regular outreach in the community to try and bridge the gap between homeless and medical communities by building relationships with them. She recently discussed the organization’s work on the university’s radio station. 

“There’s a very broad range of services [offered]. I like to think about it as the non-healthcare-related needs and the healthcare-related needs. We go out about two to three times a week. Some are shelter runs and some are street runs. The shelter runs are when we go to a shelter and set up a clinic. The street runs are when we actually go out into the city and find people where they are, and offer the healthcare that we can.”


Students require supervision when they conduct their street runs, Elewa said.

“The only way we can do this is if we have the supervision of an attending physician or a resident physician,” she said. “So we always have them on our runs as well if we’re doing medicine.”

Students provide primary or preventive care when they conduct their street runs, Elewa said.

“That’s the objective,” Elewa said. “We do our best to also provide continuity of care because we know that the best healthcare outcomes come when you have an established relationship with your provider. Unfortunately, individuals living on the streets don’t always have that. So we as a team, because we go out so frequently, try to help provide that to our patients.”

Dr. Johnny Wong launched Street Medicine Detroit in 2012, modeling the program after Pittsburgh’s Operation Safety Net, a medical and social service outreach program for people experiencing homelessness in Allegheny County. 

“Wong recognized a need. He recognized that even the most well-intentioned organizations that were out there providing healthcare to the uninsured and the underinsured were still in many ways inaccessible to individuals experiencing homelessness on the streets.”


While nearly 1,700 people are experiencing homelessness in the area, Detroit only has 997 emergency shelter beds available a year, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Neighborhood Service Organization opened the Detroit Healthy Housing Center last winter to help address the issue. The center offers low-barrier emergency shelter for 56 adults, as well as services to help homeless individuals transition into permanent housing, a 17-bed medical respite for homeless individuals to receive continuing care post-hospitalization, and a fully integrated healthcare clinic that is open to the public.

Detroit also has a shortage of mental health beds. The Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network (DWIHN) recently worked with city and county officials to determine that there was a need for more than 288 psychiatric beds in the county. DWIHN has proposed a $227 million plan to add a total of 450 beds to increase capacity for both short-term and long-term inpatient housing, which is currently under consideration by the legislature.