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As director of community services at Elijah’s Promise, Yvette Molina spends a lot of time on New Brunswick streets, working to improve the lives of homeless and low-income residents. Recently, she started noticing three converging trends: increased panhandling, a rise in opiate addiction cases and a surge of clients from beyond Central Jersey seeking social and health services that the Elijah’s Promise community kitchen provides.

To help research and report these trends, she turned to Rutgers School of Public Health, the New Jersey sponsor of the Bridging the Gaps Community Health Internship Program, which connects graduate-level health sciences students with organizations working with underserved communities. Ajan Sivaramamoorthy, a second-year student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and Joyce Nwoko, who is completing her second year at the School of Public Health, joined Molina to create and administer a survey that could provide some answers and direction.

To complete the surveys, this summer Sivaramamoorthy and Nwoko sat with 120 Elijah’s Promise clients during their meals. The surveys inquired about their histories, their experiences with opiate and heroin use and panhandling, and the variety of ways Elijah’s Promise might assist them now or in the future.

“Having a discussion rather than just handing them the survey led to conversation and more thoughtful responses,” says Sivaramamoorthy.

Although less than half of those who completed the survey reported having a substance abuse disorder, almost 75 percent knew someone using opiates – specifically, heroin – and called it “a serious problem” on the rise in the city. Of those who were substance abusers, most reported that they wish they could stop and said they would turn to Elijah’s Promise for assistance in entering a recovery program.

Read more here.