After Stephanie Tighe gave birth to her daughter in 2013, she took on a role in workers’ compensation at UPMC Harrisburg.
She quickly realized that the 8-to-5, desk-job life didn’t work for her.
“I liked it, I learned a lot, but it’s not really my thing,” says Tighe, who had previously worked as an Emergency Department technician. “I’m (more interested) in a fast-paced, let’s-move-around-and-help kind of environment.”
So when a job in community outreach opened up, she jumped at the opportunity.
Instead of spending her days behind a desk, Tighe works her days out in the community. Her job involves connecting unsheltered people with needed medical care.
“I truly believe everyone has a calling,” says Tighe, who is now a community outreach worker at UPMC in Central Pa. “So why not make the difference and take my clinical knowledge to the streets, where it can be utilized by our vulnerable population that needs help the most?”
‘I’ve Always Had That Connection’
Tighe began working in health care in the Emergency Department in 2007. Her job included triage, where she saw and got to know many unsheltered people who were frequent visitors to the ED.
“I just knew it as a group of familiar faces that were constantly coming in and out of our Emergency Department,” Tighe says. “I’ve always had that connection to those individuals because I’ve always been in the triage area. I was always the first face that they’ve seen. I’ve always had a passion and a heart for people who are staying on the streets and not really knowing what to do.”
That passion serves her well in her current role, which she’s held for about a year and a half.
Tighe helped create her position as part of the Community Health Initiatives program at UPMC in Central Pa. She visits shelters and tent encampments throughout Harrisburg and walks the streets, helping to connect unsheltered people with whatever medical services they need. That may include insurance, appointment scheduling, or medication assistance.
A major part of her job is education — informing people about other services they can use instead of visiting the Emergency Department for every concern. She also helps connect people with services like rapid rehousing programs.
“When you’re in that moment sitting inside a shelter thinking it’s the bottom of the barrel and you don’t know which way to turn next, all you need is for someone to be able to grab your hand and help you navigate a little bit further, give you what steps to take next to kind of get you rolling,” she says.
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‘A Helping Hand’
No two days are the same for Tighe.
Most of her weeks begin with follow-up from the weekend. She checks in at the hospital to see who sought care there. Then she’ll visit Harrisburg shelters, like Downtown Daily Bread, to visit with people and see what they need. Her visits tend to last longer than she expects.
“While I’m sitting in the shelter, there’s 10 other people lining up to talk to me,” she says.
She also does a lot of outreach just walking the streets and visiting homeless encampments.
Tighe and other members of the Community Health Initiatives program work as a team. The program includes nurses, paramedics, office workers, and many more.
“Stephanie has been such an amazing addition to our team,” says Theresa Sellers, director, Community Health Initiatives, UPMC in Central Pa.
“The beauty of our programs is how they intersect and have staff that refers to each other to make sure that each patient has what they need. Whether it’s insurance enrollment or we need a paramedic to go check on somebody, it’s a beautiful thing to have all those different layers of services working together.”
Sellers says Tighe’s work helps to reduce non-urgent visits to the ED because she instead connects people to resources like primary care. The goal of the entire Community Health Initiatives team is to help unsheltered people connect to the care they need when they need it.
“I feel like everyone moves a little better with confidence when you know there’s a team behind you rooting for you,” Tighe says. “I always like to take part in one of those teams.,” she says. “If I know someone is trying to get on track, I always make sure to give a helping hand and make myself available to be able to help – not only on the medical side of things but on all aspects.”
‘That One Person They Can Trust’
In many ways, Tighe is the perfect person for her job. She has an outgoing personality that helps her build bonds with others.
A hospital vice president who shadowed Tighe on one of her street visits dubbed her “The Mayor.” Many of the unsheltered people she works with know her as “Miss Steph.”
“Two things that really come to mind with Stephanie are her passion to help people and her personality to build those relationships,” Sellers says. “And that’s really all she needs. She’s excellent at what she does, and people really are drawn to her, which helps when you’re trying to build relationships and get people connected.”
That ability to build relationships is important when working with unsheltered people who may have difficulty trusting others.
They get all the promises, and they’re used to people showing up with food, and clothes, and donations,” Tighe says. “Sometimes, that’s not the biggest thing that they’re actually after.
“Yes, they want to get off the streets, and even if there’s barriers that stand between them and getting back to living independently or getting back to a place, it is possible. They just need that one person they can trust and a team of people they can trust and build with to get them on the right track.”
Tighe will go above and beyond in her work. In late 2020, she took an unsheltered man for an eye exam but later lost touch with him. After searching for him for weeks, she found him and delivered his new eyeglasses.
“It never ceases to amaze me how she can be checking on people in the tents, asking, ‘Do you need anything? What can I do for you?'” Sellers says. “But all the while, she might be on the phone dealing with someone’s insurance issues, trying to get an Uber to get someone picked up at the eye doctor, and just the complete multitasking and trying to meet these individuals’ needs.”
The job can cause Tighe stress, so she unwinds by being a “workout-aholic.” She organized a “Mommy and Me” exercise group that brings together women of all ages for high-intensity interval training.
‘Showing Them That I’m Serious’
In addition to connecting with unsheltered people, part of Tighe’s job involves educating and improving awareness for the community at large. She builds relationships with community organizations that work with unsheltered people.
People who don’t have homes often face stigmas, she says. She works hard to eliminate myths and misconceptions people may have.
“There’s such a common misconception that homeless people are homeless because they want to do drugs, or they’re alcoholics, and that’s what keeps them there,” she says. “I think the most common misconception is these select groups of people that are unsheltered are considered to be dangerous. It’s the complete opposite.”
The community outreach program strives to get people into housing long-term. It’s a step-by-step process that often begins with setting short-term goals and tackling them one by one, Tighe says. Whether that’s getting someone with a mental health diagnosis the medication they need or working to settle insurance issues, the ultimate long-term goal is to help people achieve independence.
“The literacy around our health care system, it lacks,” she says. “So it’s being that piece of education and showing them that I’m serious about locking them in to make them more independent. If you’re sitting in a shelter, you’ve lost your job, you haven’t had housing in over a year, you’ve been on and off the streets, you’re sleeping on the streets — that’s where it comes into play, where I’m like, ‘Let’s get a plan for you.'”
Every day, Tighe and the rest of the team she works with do everything they can to make it happen.
“You may be at rock bottom, but it takes one helping hand who’s serious enough to help you up the ladder,” Tighe says. “I may not be the only helping hand, but it takes a team. Once you develop that team, we’re going to encourage you to be independent, but we’re going to help you.”
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