Medical student shares profound perspective on homelessness through artful capstone scholar project

March 05, 2024

Headshot of Ben Gaylord

A profoundly humanitarian and artistic view of homelessness, provided from the perspective of homeless individuals he’s assisted, threads four years of effort undertaken by Benjamin Gaylord, MD ’24, as his Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine capstone scholar project.

As part of his project, Gaylord has produced a booklet filled with remarkable images viewed through the camera lens by homeless individuals living on the streets of New Haven, Connecticut. They are people Gaylord has come to know and assist during three years of volunteering as a street medic.

Gaylord will present his project on Friday, March 8, during the School of Medicine’s annual Capstone Scholars Day.

A graduation requirement since the Netter School of Medicine was founded on the North Haven Campus 10 years ago, the capstone project provides students with an opportunity to engage in self-directed learning as part of their medical school experience.

First-year medical students select from one of eight concentrations, then self-design and develop a longitudinal scholarly project with assistance from a mentor. A timeline built with their mentor that enables them to continue to work on their projects over the next three years.

“When I came here, I was very excited that one of the concentration choices is medical humanities. My background is in the humanities,” said Gaylord.

“I was very involved in volunteering with the homeless before I came here," he said. "One of the reasons I enjoyed volunteering so much was to talk to these people, and relate and connect to them, and realize they would be people I would be friends with and connect with in any situation." 

Gaylord’s volunteer experiences with the homeless began in 2017. He helped people living on the streets of Hollywood, California, by handing out supplies and providing meals.

“When I came to med school, I was already keen on continuing my volunteering, and maybe even adding a medical context to the services I was already providing,” says Gaylord. “I already knew volunteering was going to be a part of my life, for good."

During his first year, Gaylord looked for an organization with which he could volunteer and located Cornell Scott-Hill Community Health Center in New Haven, Connecticut.

“They have a really robust program to help the homeless,” he said. “They have providers, nurses, a case worker network, and a grant which helps to them pay for prescriptions and make co-pays on behalf of people who are homeless. Another thing they have is an amazing corps of volunteers.”

Gaylord signed on to volunteer toward the end of his first year. He quickly formed a relationship with the center’s Clinical Director of Homeless Healthcare Philip Costello, APRN.

“Phillip Costello is a healthcare hero. He has been working with the homeless in New Haven for decades. Everyone knows him. He is famous on the streets,” said Gaylord. “He also does lot with Quinnipiac. He helps med students, gives lectures, and helps out with the Bobcat Clinic that the med students run.”

Just before the start of Gaylord’s second year as a med student, he began assisting Costello in his work with the homeless on New Haven’s streets.

“I have been showing up every Thursday at about 6:30 in the morning. So I was able to do it before classes started, throughout med school,” said Gaylord. “I do a lot of screening and help out with a lot of the procedures he does.”

Gaylord said he while he’s grateful he can assist the homeless as a street medic, another important type of outreach often goes overlooked.

“In my years of volunteering experience, I’ve found that most of the emphasis is on helping people survive. That’s what I’ve been doing for years: giving out warm clothing, giving healthcare advice, interpreting labs for people and all of the stuff a street medic would do. Helping people get through each day and stay healthy is amazing, but one of the reasons I did this project was because I was always feeling something was missing,” Gaylord said.

“We’re doing so much to help people survive, but what are we doing to show everyone that they deserve to survive?” he adds. 

Gaylord also blended his love of art and film photography into his project.

“I felt this project would be a really good adjunct to the services that our wonderful volunteer healthcare workers already provide to homeless people, and maybe if enough people read this project, more minds will be changes about how we’re not doing right by the people on the streets in our urban areas,” he said.

Utilizing his project budget, Gaylord was also able to provide an extra assist to the people he was helping, especially during the cold winter months.

“I spent a lot of my budget money on warm clothes and supplies. I was kind of always the guy who had the big backpack of hats and gloves and socks that I could give to people.”

He said the individualism and endurance exhibited by people in such circumstances is something which has drawn him to assist the homeless throughout the years.

“They are people who are trying to survive, in a really extreme sense. They’re not just trying to shelter from the elements; they also have to live with robbery, assault, prejudice, and other threats they’re facing, without roof over their heads,” Gaylord said. “It’s also all sorts of people. It’s not that stereotype of ‘big, scary men.’ It’s families. It’s students.”

Getting to know these individuals better while volunteering as a street medic in New Haven was inspiring, he said.

“As I was spending more time with them, one of the things I noticed is that they were keeping their humanity. They were still laughing; they were still telling stories. A lot of them will come up and give you a hug. It’s kind of astounding to see that, especially when people are at a really low point where they have no social support and they’re scared of everyone around them.”

His project’s photography theme is built around photos which have been produced by homeless people he has assisted, using disposable cameras Gaylord provided. He offered them the chance to get involved after getting to know them over the course of a year.

“I wanted this to be an opportunity for people. I didn’t want there to be any sense of exploitation,” said Gaylord. “The people who decided to hold on to the cameras could take photos of whatever they wanted, at their own leisure, and then they could give them back to me.”

The results were astounding, he said.

“I ended up with these really amazing photos,” said Gaylord. “I was blown away by how good the art was, and how thoughtful the photos were. One woman took amazing flash photography portraits of the people who came to our set-up where we were helping out. She took most of them during the winter, early in the morning, when it was dark. Within the portraits, you can also see the conditions they were in."

Gaylord also asked the participants if they would agree to be interviewed for his project.

His interview questions included those about the homeless experience, difficulties encountered due to the healthcare system, and suggestions for what could be done better. Many of their responses are shared as quotes in his project booklet.

“They gave really thoughtful and important responses to a lot of the questions,” said Gaylord. “In a way, if you read the project, in addition to appreciating the art and humanity of the participants, you also really get a sense of their thought process on the situation they’re in, and maybe some things people can do to make things better for them.”

He also incorporated a few stories he’d journaled during his volunteer work, keeping identities anonymous. Additionally, Gaylord took a portrait of each participant, with their permission, to include in his booklet.

Gaylord said he hopes his completed project will help to break down barriers and stereotypes.

“I think art can break through those barriers. Instead of seeing the stereotypes, it can help people to empathize and see that these are people who are trying to deal with challenges most of us have never faced,” said Gaylord. “A lot of times, people are homeless because of structural inequality and systems of oppression in this country.

I think there are a lot of forces that prevent people from coming out of this level of poverty. I think art is a really good way to combat that. It shows the humanity of people.”

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