When Dr. Lisa Abdishoo first walked through the doors of the Los Angeles Christian Health Centers’ Joshua House Clinic in 1997, she was struck by the stark juxtaposition between what was going on inside and outside its walls.
Located in Skid Row, the Joshua House Clinic is not housed in a glamorous building. Often times, tents line the sidewalk outside and there’s the constant buzz of one of L.A.’s roughest neighborhoods. But inside the three-story, 100-year-old former “crack house,” is a team who practices healthcare with heart.
For many, a visit to Joshua House Clinic is a reprieve from the isolation of homelessness. For some, it’s the only place where they are treated with the dignity everyone deserves. And all who walk through their doors find judgment-free care, inspiration, and open hearts ready to help them.
Dr. Abdishoo has been with the organization since 1999, and has served as the President and CEO since December 2012. What once started as a small operation with just a few employees has now grown to a team of 150 staff members and over 100 volunteers who provide care for the 63,000+ visits they get per year. She oversees two full-time sites, including the Joshua House Clinic, and 12 part-time satellite clinics located throughout Skid Row, Boyle Heights, and Watts. Every day, more than 200 patients come through their clinics’ doors to receive care.
Running an operation like the Joshua House Clinic is no easy feat. It requires compassion, perseverance, and patience. But Dr. Abdishoo and her team know it’s a job that must be done.
“We’re bringing access to healthcare that everyone needs and deserves no matter what. Growing access in Skid Row is important in the quest to end homelessness in Los Angeles, and LACHC has been on the forefront of this for more than 20 years,” she says. “When people feel better physically, hope can be restored and that’s when lives are transformed."
She’s a firm believer that the therapeutic nature of the doctor-patient relationship can help bolster people’s resiliency as they weather the trauma of homelessness. Even just a simple screening could provide relief from anxiety, which in turn could allow someone to take the next steps they need to take for recovery.
The Joshua House Clinic goes beyond healthcare. Once a patient passes through their doors, they can also access other types of help, such as detox programs, rehab programs, or supportive housing.
Dr. Abdishoo and her team are well on their way to changing Skid Row’s landscape. In early 2018, elected officials were joined by esteemed members of the community to break ground on Skid Row Housing Trust’s Six Four Nine Lofts, a mixed-use development that will provide 55 supportive housing apartments for people who are experiencing homelessness, including veterans and people with chronic health issues. Directly below the apartments will be the new Joshua House Health Center, a 25,000 square foot community clinic lead by Dr. Abdishoo, and slated to be the medical home for 7,000 patients.
Once it opens in 2019, the modern clinic will provide top-quality healthcare to meet the medical, dental, optometry, mental health, and social service needs of Skid Row’s residents and the community beyond Skid Row.
Dr. Abdishoo’s efforts are a true testament that healthcare can directly help people get out of homelessness. Through her work, people facing great challenges are given hope for a healthier future and a better tomorrow.
We sat down with Dr. Abdishoo to discuss her career and what brought her to one of L.A.’s most underserved communities. Learn more below:
What are some common misconceptions you’d like to dispel about the folks living on Skid Row?
One misconception I come across is the idea that someone who is resistant to getting help on a particular day wants to continue to be homeless forever. There are so many, very understandable reasons why someone may refuse the help of a shelter or an outreach team. Sometimes it can have to do with maintaining what little autonomy the person has left. At times it may have to do with fatigue from past attempts to get help that didn’t go well. Sometimes it may be related to an underlying mental illness and paranoia/distrust that often goes with that. For those of us who do this work, we just need to remember to be patient in building the relationship, to remind ourselves that it takes time, and not to give up.
Another misconception is that someone who is homeless on the streets of Skid Row is past the point where there is any hope for them. When you look from the outside at this situation — thousands of people living in such unthinkably horrible conditions — there can be this sort of dehumanization that happens in our minds, and with that, I think a sense of helplessness, and hopelessness. I suppose these are coping mechanisms that we use because the suffering is too much for us to process. Even after working here for 20 years, I wrestle with it too sometimes. But ultimately, people experiencing homelessness truly have the same needs, wants, dreams, strength, and resiliency that every human being has…and that there is hope for everyone. I’ve seen thousands of our community members who at one point looked like they were beyond hope, experience turning points where they get help and ultimately exit out of homelessness.
What can the Los Angeles community do to help alleviate the struggles found on Skid Row?
I truly believe everyone in Los Angeles can find a way to get involved, and in fact we definitely need everybody.
Giving financial support to clinics like ours or to other social service agencies in our community is a great way to help. All of us run with very tight budgets and the number of people we can help is directly tied to the dollars coming in the door! Another great way to get involved is through volunteering. We have a great need for volunteer doctors, nurses, pharmacists and many others. We also need administrative volunteers and people to help with special events. You don’t have to be a medical professional to volunteer.
Finally, I would say that even if you aren’t in a position to donate financially or through volunteering your time, you can be an advocate for social justice and an end to disparities. Come and take a tour of our health center, or another agency in Skid Row and learn about the issues so that you can add your voice on behalf of people who are homeless in your community. Consider attending city council meetings in the district where you live and support construction of homeless services facilities, affordable housing, and especially permanent supportive housing in your community.
What are you most looking forward to when the new Joshua House Health Center and Six Four Nine Lofts open?
For more than 20 years, we have provided high quality care to the Skid Row community—but our building (a former crack house hotel built in 1913) hasn’t really reflected or supported that care in the way we would have liked. So…
1. I can’t wait to invite our patients into a building that is beautiful and welcoming, that conveys a sense of dignity and worth, and that matches the quality of health care that is being provided inside the walls.
2. I am excited about having a much more efficient layout for our multi-disciplinary, team-based care, unlike our existing facility that was adapted from an old hotel and has long, narrow hallways and no elevator. The new facility’s ground level entrance lobby will be a welcoming, double-height space leading to the second level waiting areas though either a grand staircase or elevators. The second floor will be the main reception and intake area. It will also include the Primary Care Area, Social Service offices and a chapel for prayer and meditation. The third level will include additional health and social services including Optometry, Mental Health, and Dental offices. Finally, a Multi-Purpose room and adjacent outdoor open area overlooking the surrounding community will provide a space for staff trainings and community events.
3. We are thrilled about the fact that there will be four floors of residential apartments – the Six Four Nine Lofts – located above the clinic. The housing component is going to be separately owned and operated by our partner, the Skid Row Housing Trust, and we are so excited about the collaboration between the healthcare and the housing inside the new space. The apartments will provide a permanent home to 55 formerly homeless individuals including veterans.
How will the new clinic impact Skid Row?
With the increased space, 7,000 individuals per year will be able to access care at our Joshua House Clinic, which is 2,200 individuals more than we are currently serving. And that care will be as comprehensive as ever, including medical care, dental services, mental health therapy, substance use treatment, optometry, and social work services with linkages to housing. By increasing the accessibility of all of these services, this new facility will help bring new possibilities for health, wellness, stability, and recovery from homelessness to thousands of individuals in Skid Row.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I’m convinced that healthcare without housing doesn’t work, and neither does housing without healthcare. As much as we physicians might hate to admit it at times, if we can’t address our homeless patients’ need for housing, then our all of our medical diagnoses and treatments will be largely ineffective.
And the flip side of that is true too; if you put someone into housing but don’t provide strong linkages to medical care, mental health/substance use services, etc., that housing will be largely ineffective in helping that person achieve wellness and stability. It’s critical that we partner housing and healthcare together — whether through embedding housing navigation services within the health care setting, through embedding medical case management in the housing setting, or through co-location projects like our Joshua House Health Center / Six Four Nine Lofts project.