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Skid Row Angels


By Dan Frankel

Published Jan 1, 2010 8:00 AM

It's never a good thing when business booms at the UCLA School of Nursing Health Center in downtown Los Angeles. But it's understandable that this is a particularly active year for the center, which is on the front lines of a homelessness crisis made much worse by an awful economy, a continually deteriorating health-care situation and a global flu pandemic.

Operating out of the Union Rescue Mission on San Pedro Street (in the heart of "Skid Row"), the facility was founded by the School of Nursing at the request of the mission in 1983. It serves about 2,000 individual patients a year while handling 6,500 cases, according to Aaron Strehlow Ph.D. '01, the UCLA-trained nurse-practitioner who has been in charge of the facility since 1986.


Back-to-school screenings in the mission's chapel.

"Back in the early days, we'd see more patients, but they weren't as sick," says Strehlow. "These days, due mainly to the deteriorating health-care situation in this country, we're seeing more unmanaged chronic disease. The complexity has increased, and it takes us more time to deal with each of those cases."

The demographics of Skid Row's homeless are also changing. "We're now seeing a lot more women and children," Strehlow adds.

Fortunately, the skill level, along with the complexity and number of services provided by the health center, has increased over time.

"Back when I first started, we offered superficial band-aid type therapy — we weren't managing diabetics. Today, we're providing more comprehensive health-care services to treat these conditions. There's no other place to refer them to now."

Indeed, more and more, Strehlow notes, the health center finds itself in the role of managing the chronic illnesses of a regular group of patients so that their condition doesn't spiral into something worse.

"Ultimately, we're preventing people from having to go to the emergency room for a minor condition that gets blown out of the water. For example, we treat a cold that would turn into bronchitis or a high fever that would require hospitalization," he says.

Getting Better All the Time

To learn more about how the UCLA School of Nursing is helping to build the healing arts — and train the healers — of tomorrow, visit

Aided by two full-time nurse practitioners and two part-timers — as well as nursing school students and Bruin medical residents — the center exists on a $348,000 subcontract from the nonprofit Northeast Valley Health Corporation, along with any private support it can get. The UCLA School of Nursing provides at least 50 percent in matching funds, and the center also was recently awarded a $1-million federal training grant, which will allow the facility to increase staffing and handle another 2,000 patients a year.

"We're able to really touch people's lives," Strehlow says, "and we hear phenomenal stories. Nobody ever listens to these people, but we treat them with dignity and respect."