Health

How to survive cancer while homeless

Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital has a program aimed at housing the sickest of L.A.'s homeless.
Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital has a program aimed at housing the sickest of L.A.'s homeless.
Courtesy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital

When he found out he had a tumor lodged in his spine, Arthur Lowden still had a home.

His landlord offered to wait a bit for rent while Lowden awaited his first paycheck from a new job at a clothing store.

But after four days in the emergency room, a month in a Glendale hospital where doctors cut the tumor out, and another month recovering in a convalescent home, the landlord's patience ran out.

"He said, 'I know you're sick, but you've got three days to get out,'" Lowden said. 

The next few months were a constant quest for rest in between the two chemo and 19 radiation treatments he had left. 

"I'd go to the emergency room and stay in there overnight, sometimes I'd ride the bus all night," he said. "I found a cardboard box to lay on the ground. It was so cold."

Then a social worker told him about a program L.A. County had just opened up at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital — a "recuperative care" center for homeless individuals trying to recover from illnesses. A couple of weeks later, he was in one of the center's beds in the old medical residents' dorm. 

The center, which opened almost a year ago, is the first in L.A. County co-located at a hospital.

While recuperative care — bringing in homeless who are sick but have nowhere to recover — has been around for a while, this program has an expanded reach because the center is conveniently situated at the hospital, said Dr. Mark Ghaly, deputy director of community health for L.A. County's health services department.

"It changes the type of client you can accept at the facility," he said. "We're able to take a client with more immediate clinical needs." 

The county has been slowly expanding its use of recuperative care since Dr. Mitch Katz, who directs the county's health agency, came to L.A. in 2011. 

Now there are about 200 such beds in L.A., adding an important piece to the continuum of care for a homeless population that's getting older and sicker each year, Ghaly said. 

But as recuperative care expands, it is still difficult to find permanent homes for patients once they're healthy. 

MLK's center has served 142 people so far and has managed to get 31 into permanent housing. Others have been diverted to transitional homes while they await placement. 

"It's not the permanent solution for anyone," he said. "Occasionally it becomes the answer for longer than we want it to because the discharge placement isn't there. And this is an age-old problem for a a lot of services in the safety net. You create something in the middle that's really innovative and great, but in order for its success to be scaled up, you need to figure out the back door."

For his part, Lowden had a permanent placement set up until he learned he needed knee surgery and ended up staying in recuperative care longer. Now, he's healing and working on finding a long-term place. For the moment, he said, his cancer's under control and he's just grateful for where he is. 

"I just want to thank them for bringing me in so I can get well," he said.