handle with care

Michelle Regan
July 01, 2019

In Honolulu‘s Chinatown, a middle-aged man stands in a doorway, leaning back against the wall. Nearby, a shopping cart holds everything he owns. A mostly toothless smile lights up his sunbaked face when a volunteer offers him a hygiene kit.   

Medical students from the Hawaii Homeless Outreach & Medical Education (H.O.M.E.) Project ask to look at a wound on his ankle. He’s had the wound for over a year and just got the bandage changed this morning. They offer him another fresh bandage and he gladly accepts. “You know how much they charge for these in the store?” he asks. “Three dollars and seventy cents. For one bandage!” He tells the students he’s grateful for their help.

Shayna Hu thinks she might like to be a pediatrician but hasn’t decided yet. She likes the idea of helping people before there’s a problem. “Instead of when they‘re older and it‘s kind of like you‘re just medicating the consequences,” says Hu. “It‘s more teaching them how to start up and not get to that point. That‘s my spark in it.“

Hu’s in a gap year. She graduated from UH Hilo last year and she’s taking her time applying to medical school. But don’t confuse taking a breath with laziness. Hu spends her time volunteering with the Hawaii H.O.M.E. Project at the Joint Outreach Center (JOC) in Chinatown. In addition to traditional medical care, the JOC provides resources for housing, mental illness, and addiction. While medical students are required to spend time at the clinic or someplace like it, Hu’s there because she wants to learn.

On Tuesday mornings, you can find her handing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the homeless residents. From the JOC home base on Hotel Street to River Street where the City and County’s sit-lie ban ends, medical students and volunteers like Hu walk the neighborhood to help homeless men and women. They offer first aid and hygiene kits and some talk story.

“People don‘t have the best of luck sometimes,” says Hu. “It‘s a situational thing that maybe if you help them, they can improve.”

Hu appreciates all that she’s learned through her work with the Hawaii H.O.M.E. Project. She gets more hands-on experience than other volunteer opportunities she’s had in the past, which were mostly administrative. She enjoys talking with patients about their symptoms and chief complaints when she checks them in. And she’s grateful for the chance to practice simple first aid on regular patients in the neighborhood as part of the only mobile student-run free clinic in Hawai'i.

Hu’s lived in Hawaii her whole life. Over the years, she’s seen the homeless population explode into a full-blown crisis. She’s passionate about helping residents find the support they need. “It’s something very important to Hawaii,” she says. “Because it just keeps growing and these are our people.”

She says many people who are homeless are reluctant to seek medical care because they’re treated differently than other patients. Some won’t visit the center because it’s next to the police station.

That’s why Hawaii H.O.M.E. Project volunteers and students go to them. Hu says her work at the JOC has taught her to consider social, psychological, and lifestyle factors in addition to medical concerns. It’s perspective that she hopes to carry into her career someday. 

Photos by Earl Yoshii


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