MLK Community Healthcare launches Street Medicine Department

The initiative aims to break the cycle of severe illness and hospitalization caused by unhoused South LA residents’ lack of access to primary and specialty care


June 27, 2023– Most patients who are discharged from a hospital can usually count on follow-up care with their family doctor.  Not so in South Los Angeles, where a dire doctor shortage has made it difficult to access care even for those with stable insurance, transportation and a roof over their head.

For the homeless, the situation is even more grim.  Lack of money, transportation and other supports compound the challenges of recovering from illness and contribute to an abysmal average life expectancy that is decades less than those with housing.  These barriers are also why South LA’s unhoused often return to the hospital after being discharged – sometimes again and again. 

In response, MLK Community Healthcare launched a new initiative to ensure that homeless patients receive the critical follow-up care they need to recover from illness and avoid a repeat hospitalization.

“Patients in South LA often get discharged out into a healthcare abyss in South LA,” said Dr. Sarat Varghese, medical director of the new MLKCH Street Medicine Department.  “We want to fill that abyss with the services and care our unhoused patients need and to break the cycle of illness they face.”

The program sends an interdisciplinary team of clinical care experts, social workers and outreach experts onto the streets to do regular checks on formerly hospitalized MLK Community Hospital patients who are unhoused.  The team performs a range of health and supportive functions, from refilling prescription medicines to performing simple wound care or staple or suture removal.  Critically, the MLKCH team encourages their patients to enroll in CalAIM, a state program to connect Medicaid recipients to supportive services.

“We’re trying to keep people out of the hospital but beyond that, we’re trying to help connect them to services and resources that could be a way out of homelessness,” said Jessica Nunez, social work & Street Medicine Department manager. Homelessness has grown to epidemic proportions in California. In Los Angeles County alone, more than 69,144 people are homeless with South LA’s unhoused comprising 21% of that total.  Those who sleep on the streets verses in a shelter – so-called “rough sleepers” – are among the most vulnerable members of our society; average life expectancy is 42-52 years compared to 78 years for housed individuals.  Thirty-eight percent of the unhoused have two or more major medical illnesses, 25 percent have a severe mental illness and at least 30 percent have a current drug-use disorder.

Poor health is compounded by difficulties accessing quality care. According to independent research commissioned by MLKCH, South LA lacks an estimated 1,500 primary and specialty care physicians relative to more affluent areas, resulting in often long wait times to see a provider.  As a result, many unhoused residents recover from illness only to readmitted due to lack of follow-up care in the community.  MLKCH estimates that 11% of patients admitted more than once to the hospital are unhoused.

The MLKCH team will closely follow and support approximately 50-60 unhoused former patients to start and build out the program as time goes on.  The MLKCH Street Medicine Department trained and works in close collaboration with the USC Keck Street Medicine program, ensuring broader continuity of coverage throughout areas of LA most affected by homelessness. 

Learn more about MLKCH and its mission to provide high-quality care to the medically-underserved community of South LA at and follow us on social media @yourMLKCH. 

About MLK Community Healthcare: MLK Community Healthcare is an integrated healthcare delivery system that serves the medically-underserved community of South Los Angeles. MLKCH offers emergency and inpatient care through its hospital, MLK Community Hospital, and primary and specialty care through the MLK Community Medical Group, with practice sites in multiple locations throughout South Los Angeles. MLKCH also offers community health education and outreach to improve the health of our community. Since its opening in 2015, the hospital and health system has earned awards and headlines for its innovative approaches to quality, safety and patient satisfaction.  


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