Dr. William Mazzella has a message for the homeless living on the streets of Alexandria, Virginia.
“I have the medicines,” Mazzella said. “I have the bandages, the training, and I’m here to help you if you will have me.”
Mazzella’s day job is working at hospitals in rural areas across the U.S. His work could last for a few days to a few weeks.
“I live in Alexandria and travel around the country,” Mazzella said. “Idaho, Colorado, Louisiana, Alabama. We only have 58% of the physicians that we need nationally, so we have a huge physician shortage,” he said.
But when Mazzella returns home at night, he often puts a stethoscope around his neck and loads up a large backpack full of supplies that he paid for on his own.
He walks the streets, checks under bridges and explores alleys looking for the homeless and offering them free health care.
A few months ago, Mazzella began giving consultations and care to people staying at the Alexandria Community Shelter.
Now, he has formed a nonprofit called MedStreet, which is accepting donations and seeking volunteers to help continue his work and help more people.
Mazzella would ultimately like to establish a national model, so even more people living on the streets can get the health care they need.
“The hope is to set up an infrastructure … other docs in other cities can adopt … where we can cut through a lot of these barriers for people,” he said.
‘The most amazing thing’
Mazzella has been helping the homeless and poor for years, and when he and his wife moved to Alexandria, they decided to take action in a big way.
“One day my wife … started making sandwiches and putting socks into brown paper bags. I packed up some medical supplies, and we put [our son] Joseph in his car seat and we went and hit the streets and started seeing homeless people. [We were] taking care of them,” he said.
The effort has been going on for about a year, and sometimes medical students and volunteers come along.
“The most amazing thing is sometimes people will see me and accept some care, and they’ll point me to someone who really needs help who won’t ask for help themselves. They’ll tell me where to go, what alley,” Mazzella said.
Mazzella sometimes recruits other doctors to provide free care. When a homeless woman he calls Miss GQ needed urgent dental care recently, a local dentist agreed to help.
Miss GQ is scheduled to head next to an oral surgeon, who is also donating services.
‘Volunteering his time’
Clifton Lee is one of the people who gets help from Mazzella at the Alexandria Community Shelter, a 64-bed shelter that serves men, women and children.
“I appreciate him coming in and volunteering his time to help us out here at the shelter because there’s [a] lot of us in here that need help,” Lee said.
Lee has been out of work for several years because he has uncontrolled diabetes that has left him with terrible pain in his hands and feet.
Lee said even standing is difficult, let alone walking.
“I’m trying to get it under control and get my life back together,” Lee said.
The shelter’s executive director, Christine Miller, said the reaction to Mazzella has been overwhelmingly positive.
“They do appreciate the additional support. It’s always nice to not have to refer folks out if we don’t have to, and just to have some kind of basic questions answered,” she said.
Miller said Mazzella’s help comes at a time when more young people than usual are staying at the shelter.
“We do typically see more single males than we do families,” Mazzella said. “However, I will say right now, we have more families than I’ve ever seen before. We have 13 children currently in the shelter.”
Miller thinks at least part of the reason for that is a decrease in affordable housing and an uptick in evictions in Alexandria.
A Valentine’s Day goal
On Valentine’s Day, MedStreet is launching a homeless awareness and fundraising campaign called “Love Your Neighbor.”
“The No. 1 mission of MedStreet … is to humanize the homeless,” Mazzella said.
It’s more important to give a homeless person eye contact than money, he said.
“They feel so isolated and so lonely, and usually the response is a look away, leaning to the other side of the sidewalk, quicken my pace. It’s very shunning, and I feel it with them. When you go out for your Valentine’s Day dinner and you see a homeless person, maybe … hand them the rose or just give them a hello or a smile. That does more than you can imagine,” Mazzella said.