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ASU alumna bridges gap between homelessness and healthcare

Vivienne Gellert is the president and founder of Elaine, a group that serves as a 'medical compass' to those in need


ASU alumna Vivienne Gellert poses for a photo outside her office in downtown Phoenix, Arizona, on Wednesday, March 27, 2019.

A need of the homeless that is often overlooked is that of acquiring transportation to healthcare appointments, but an ASU alumna is looking to help.

Elaine is an Arizona transportation system for underserved communities and the brainchild of ASU graduate Vivienne Gellert. Elaine focuses on connecting homeless individuals to primary care and appointments, general resources and medication fills and refills.

As the founder and president of Elaine, Gellert’s interest in serving homeless communities began when she delivered a speech for a class at ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus. Her speech, which she called “Give a Man a Jacket, Not a Dollar,” discussed the importance of human connection when interacting with homeless people as opposed to one-off interactions.

Years later, Elaine has offered health transportation, guidance and other resources to those in need since its launch in February 2018. 

Gellert said transportation to and from medical appointments is a need that she and her team is happy to help with.

“When I really thought about it, I saw that a lack of transportation in these individuals affected their healthcare journey,” Gellert said. “Everyone in our society leaves an impact, regardless of economic class. It’s our job as human beings to play our part.”

She said that as an organization, Elaine takes care to treat its clients the way it would treat family members. Additionally, one of Elaine's missions is to work with clients to assure they understand how to improve overall wellbeing after the appointments.

“At some point, most will have a family member that they love who will become ill, and we’ll take them to their appointments and make sure they’re getting the most they can out of their care,” Gellert said. 

Joseph DePinto, a faculty associate in the School of Social Work, said Elaine is offering something that is crucial, but often overlooked.

“Even for people in more traditional scenarios, you’re going to have health problems come up every once in a while,” DePinto said. “Those problems are only going to be exacerbated when someone is dealing with homelessness.” 

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, between 20-25% of the U.S. homeless population has some form of severe mental illness. He said that because Elaine offers services that go beyond transportation, such as counsel and resources, its work could assist those populations in getting and maintaining the proper care. 

Alexis Koskan, an assistant professor in the College of Health Solutions, said prescriptions can be made more complicated when homelessness is involved. 

“With the overlap of mental health in diagnoses, medication becomes more difficult because certain medications require refrigeration, or to take with meals,” Koskan said. “You can’t take a pill with a meal if you aren't eating; you can’t refrigerate your medication if you don’t have that kind of access.” 

One of Elaine's priorities is keeping clients up to date on their medication, something that Gellert said is crucial in underserved communities. 

Elaine is not Gellert's first initiative to assist homeless populations. While still in college, Gellert launched a student-run organization called BakPak that aimed to connect homeless individuals to services. She said that though formal education is important, passion does not wait for a degree. 

“You aren’t too young to do anything if you have the passion and drive to see it through,” Gellert said. “Younger people need to break barriers, you need to be a lifelong learner and you just need to do it.” 

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