When most of Chicago is just coming home from work, The Night Ministry is just starting its day, seeking uninsured people to make sure they’re aware of new health insurance options through the Affordable Care Act.
Five nights a week, The Night Ministry — a nonprofit organization that provides housing, health care and other forms of support for homeless people or those in danger of becoming homeless — takes its Health Outreach Bus from neighborhood to neighborhood, from about 7 p.m. to midnight.
The RV bus has a medical exam room in the back, so a nurse can provide immediate health care to people who need it — instead of them having to go to an emergency room. At the same time, the nurse asks the people they’re serving if they have health insurance, so they can get more traditional health care at a clinic or hospital. If they don’t have insurance and they want it, the nurse signs them up, usually for Medicaid, the state-federal health program for low-income people.
The organization focuses on six neighborhoods with high rates of uninsured people: Uptown, South Shore, Pilsen, Humboldt Park, Wicker Park and Back of the Yards. Each night, it goes to two or three of those neighborhoods.
They go out at night, so they can find homeless people at places where they are known to sleep or take refuge at night — whether that be on a street corner, near a park or at an industrial area.
“Our program is really aimed at people who are living on the street and are very vulnerable,” said Erin Ryan, vice president of operations at The Night Ministry. “We take our facility to them.”
The Night Ministry is far from new. It was founded in 1976, and has operated mobile buses since 1989.
And the mobile bus does a lot more than just provide health care. Volunteers also provide food to the hungry and information on housing for those in need.
With new options for health coverage through the Affordable Care Act, though, The Night Ministry has put more focus on connecting them to Medicaid enrollment and community health clinics.
On Wednesday night, around 7:30., about two dozen people showed up at the Health Outreach Bus near 71st and Jeffery in South Shore. Another two dozen gathered around 10 p.m. at Hazel and Wilson in Uptown.
No one expressed interest in applying for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act that night. Most said they already had insurance, either from their job or through CountyCare — an early rollout of the Medicaid expansion in Cook County through the Affordable Care Act.
Though Linda Tanni, the registered nurse on the bus that night, said, “I register someone pretty much every day.”
The Night Ministry did not immediately have information on how many people they had signed up for insurance, but they said they did about 1,220 health assessments last year on the bus.
And for those who still can’t get health insurance through the law — usually because they’re undocumented — The Night Ministry remains a key avenue for them to get their health care needs met.
“There are still these cracks, and those are the cracks that services like the Night Ministry in our program are filling,” Ryan said.