When a young entrepreneur and aspiring medical professional saw an overwhelming need in the community to assist the homeless, she shifted gears toward a future in philanthropic entrepreneurship with an important mission.

“Elaine” has a purpose to improve the continuity of care for individuals experiencing homelessness through health navigation and transportation post-discharge from medical services. The cornerstone of this work is the belief that individuals experiencing homelessness are people who deserve care beyond survival.

The brainchild of Arizona State University pre-med student Vivienne Gellert, Elaine was named after an individual experiencing homelessness who tragically lost her life after being struck by a vehicle on the streets of Phoenix.

“We are working to fill an unmet need of connecting individuals experiencing homelessness to health care and behavioral appointments, prescriptions and social services post-discharge from hospital services and partner clinics,” Vivienne says. “Many of these individuals have to beg for much of what they need. It is our philosophy that no one should have to beg for their health.” 

A Phoenix native, Vivienne recognized the need for this service while working as a scribe at two inner-city hospitals as a pre-med student at ASU’s downtown campus.  

“I always wanted to be a doctor, as it was what I was surrounded with growing up, with both parents in medicine. Part of my undergraduate program involved working at an inner-city hospital with a large homeless population,” she says. “There was a great deal of reactionary care due to the lack of preventative care. I was a sophomore in college at the time and felt an overwhelming call to help these individuals instead of turning my head, as I felt many people did. I knew their names, I packed their bags with basic items, I provided human connection. Their situations and isolation tugged at my heart.”

Focused on a new goal, Vivienne wrote a persuasive speech for school with a subject of “Give a Man Your Jacket, Not Your Dollar.” Her hope was to provide substantial reasoning behind creating more human connections with the homeless.

“I practiced what I preached, of course. That day I walked by a homeless man on the campus downtown, and I got him a drink and groceries. I asked if he had a bag to put it all in, as he carried his life belongings in the grocery bags we are often quick to throw away,” Vivienne says. “Ultimately, I started putting together backpacks for these individuals. I put together a group of pre-med and nursing students to assemble backpacks. We’d go out and supply the homeless community with basic supply backpacks. In order to refill the backpack, they’d have to attend workshops, and it became a great partnership.”

The direction of what was later named BAKPAK went into outreach events, and it was successful.

“People were out of the door waiting to interact with our team. What a wonderful culture we established at the Human Services Campus [a collaborative force comprising 25 partner organizations all working toward ending homelessness]. I started presenting to groups and neighborhood coalitions.”

Vivienne eventually obtained a meeting with the Banner Health chairperson. Upon reflection of what she wanted to present, as for a goal to help the homeless, she looked at the situation she was currently in.

“At the time, the Human Services Campus overflow shelter shut down,” she says. “These individuals were prioritizing survival and standing in line for a mat to sleep on at one in the afternoon over attending court dates, health appointments., etc., and that was a serious hurdle in being able to successfully end their homelessness. Of course, these homeless individuals were going to prioritize a place to sleep. Who wouldn’t?”

That’s when Vivienne realized the real need that wasn’t being met: care beyond survival, or transportation and health navigation for individuals experiencing homelessness.

Vivienne’s presentation was a success. Soon, transportation protocol began, and other experts came on board. Elaine created a network of providers who work collaboratively.

“We are trusted and known. We got official sponsorship from the Valley Toyota Dealers Association who donated three new vehicles to Elaine. We also have wonderful partnerships with the Human Services Campus; Circle the City, which provides health care for the homeless; Caritas Law Group; Dignity Health; Ramsey Social Justice Foundation; TONAL; and the Herzberg Family. We have built and maintained a culture within each client’s eyes. When an Elaine van is driving around or we’re in our uniforms, people are jumping and waving at us. My team has put that into action and made it a reality.” 

Vivienne is happy to see her dreams become a reality at such a young age. It is all about the personal stories that make her days meaningful.

“There was a patient diagnosed with cancer who wasn’t keeping up on his cancer treatment. He was connected with our navigator who went to the urologist with him and found out he had an aggressive form of cancer, but he had not been compliant with his care due to dementia,” Vivienne says. “Our navigator and the doctor worked together on a care plan going forward and set up necessary tests. In one day our navigator set up all of his appointments and accompanied him. He comes to our lobby every morning to meet with and take medications with our navigator. There has been a massive change in his life. His is a great example of what our work is doing for these individuals. We asked him, ‘Why do you care about your health now?’ And he said he feels wanted. It’s amazing.”

We are confident that Elaine will translate to other vulnerable populations that need us: the elderly, disabled … We are creating a national model for all these individuals and a blueprint so others can implement this important process. ” –Vivienne Gellert, CEO of Elaine