May 25th, 2021
When the City of Spartanburg and the Spartanburg Interfaith Hospitality Network (SPIHN) and other partners came together to repurpose an aging community center into the Opportunity Center, one of the goals was for social service providers from across the community to maintain a consistent presence there to connect with individuals experiencing homelessness. According to Beth Rutherford, the center’s director, no organization has done a better job of that than AccessHealth Spartanburg.
Indeed, rather than hoping homeless individuals and other people in need find their way to AccessHealth, AHS is meeting people where they are. Tanisha Cook (pictured at left), one of AccessHealth’s care navigators and a registered nurse, works from the Opportunity Center 2-3 days a week. Cook also includes local homeless shelters as well as substance abuse recovery homes among her regular rounds. At each place, she uses her training as a registered nurse and her extensive knowledge of the full spectrum of social services available in the community to help people connect to the assistance they need in addition to getting signed up for AccessHealth.
“One of the things we’re really trying to do is make the Opportunity Center a one-stop shop,” Rutherford said. “Ninety-nine percent of our beneficiaries are walking or relying on public transportation, so if they get a one-day bus pass they might not use it to go somewhere else for an appointment. Our hope when we started this center was to have representatives from all the different social service agencies and organizations come and have a presence here, from mental health to housing agencies to you name it. We were working on this and then COVID hit.
“But Accesshealth Spartanburg is the one that has always been there. They have always been reliable.”
Most AHS clients are initially referred to the organization or are contacted by AHS after visiting the emergency department. They visit the AHS office, located on Howard Street in the city’s Northside, where they enroll and begin the process of getting connected to medical care. AHS Director Summer Tebalt hired Cook specifically to be out in the community to enroll people who aren’t likely to find their way to AHS because of transportation and other obstacles.
“The clients I’m helping are all very low income, they are homeless, they have a lack of transportation and many other barriers,” Cook said. “There are a lot of resources available to them, but they are living in survival mode. I really enjoy what I’m doing because I get to go out and help people where they are. At the Opportunity Center, I meet with them, meet with their case manager. It’s rewarding to know that rather than people continuing to miss on their opportunities to get assistance, instead they are getting signed up, getting connected to the health care and other assistance they need because AccessHealth allows me to go out to meet them where they are.”
In addition to her weekly stops at the Opportunity Center and St. Luke’s Free Medical Clinic, Cook visits Miracle Hill Rescue Mission, Goforth Recovery (a recovery home for men) and A Light Unto My Path (a recovery home for women) at least once a month.
“I get them enrolled on site — I try to get them enrolled quickly,” Cook said. “For people in recovery, if we can help them get the medical care they need quickly that is often what they need so they can get to work quickly. It helps them rebuild their life.”
That attitude makes Cook a particularly good fit for the position. After 21 years in health care, including five as a hospice care nurse, her empathy and understanding of the difficult obstacles people face comes out in her approach to her job.
“I was very interested in this position because I wanted to spend more time with clients and not feel rushed, and still use my nursing experience and education,” Cook said. “It’s hard for people who are homeless or people who are in recovery to get to us. Many of them don’t have phones — people who come to our office can be called to set up appointments, but there are many people who need help who can’t be reached that way.
"You have to reach them face-to-face. You have to be flexible. It’s important to meet them where they are, because a lot of people haven’t been to a doctor in years. Their health is pushed to the back burner because they are in pure survival mode. But health plays a role in everything. If they’re not taking care of their high blood pressure, that leads to other issues that can keep them from working. Not working means no income and could cause them to live in shelters or be homeless. So to me, it’s a cycle and access to health care plays a big role in having a normal functional life.”
Cook spends a lot of time discovering what their underlying health conditions are, then building trust with them so she can educate them about diabetes or hypertension, for example. She is able to provide information to the physician on her clients’ behalf that enables them to develop a more effective treatment plan. “Many people are just not comfortable talking to a doctor,” Cook said. “Just going into a doctor’s office can be intimidating, so part of my job is to help fill in those gaps.”
And that all starts by meeting people where they are, whether that is a homeless shelter, the Opportunity Center, or a recovery center.
“I don’t like to sit in an office all day,” Cook said. “I want to look them in the eyes, and when you do that, I think people open up more. Talking over the phone or coming into an office with a lot of other people — those things can be intimidating. Me in their environment is less intimidating and leads to better results.”