Medical student earns Crisis Hero Award for combating homelessness

William Gavin, Staff Writer

When Megan Leubner took a law and health policy class as an undergraduate at Brandeis University for a requirement, she had no idea she’d started a path that would lead her to receive the Crisis Hero Award from the Connecticut Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Leubner, a third-year medical student at Quinnipiac University, said the class opened her eyes to the “downstream effects” of the U.S.’s health care system on health and poverty. While studying at Brandeis, Leubner volunteered with Boston Health Care for the Homeless, which jump-started her interest in helping people in need.

Catherine DiTuri (right), Columbus House Inc. development director, nominated Megan Leubner (left) for the Crisis Hero Award. (Photo contributed by Megan Leubner)

“I’d say that was the most exposure I had had in my entire life to working with populations who were experiencing either very fragile housing situations or who were currently unhoused,” Leubner said. 

At BHOH, Leubner worked as a patient activity leader, helping people by leading programs such as therapeutic art classes. Leubner said her time at BHOH inspired her to continue working in community service, both as a volunteer and a researcher. 

Last spring, Leubner traveled to Providence, Rhode Island, for a volunteer program providing foot care for homeless individuals.

“It was such a meaningful experience and it made me feel reconnected to volunteering,” Leubner said. “Like I’m so drawn and feel centered — I remember what’s important at the end of the day. Every time I do this kind of work, it’s just magnetic to me like that.”

In Providence, Leubner met her mentor Tracy Van Oss, a clinical professor of occupational therapy at Quinnipiac, over Zoom. 

“(Leubner) called me from her boyfriend’s house in the basement, and we probably talked for over an hour,” Van Oss said. “She was so enthusiastic, and she was so passionate and she was so excited about all of these things that she wanted to explore.” 

Van Oss serves on the board of Connecticut nonprofit Columbus House Inc., which provides an emergency shelter and other services for homeless individuals. 

With Van Oss as a mentor, Leubner began working as a volunteer for Columbus House while laying the foundation for her future capstone research project on how COVID-19 affected New Haven residents in fragile housing situations.

When the pandemic hit Connecticut, the Columbus House was forced to adapt. Suddenly housing services became remote, state services were overwhelmed and many of Columbus House’s usual volunteers were unable to help. Other homeless shelters across the state were temporarily shut down or heavily modified to match new health protocols. 

Along with nine other volunteers, Leubner created a system to collect, store and distribute over 6,400 household items to people in need, over just a few months. 

“We had a website, we posted a lot of stuff on Facebook and we were posting in our group chats, and essentially what we did is we created a porch-pickup system so no contact needed to be had,” Leubner said. 

 Leubner and her team were unable to see many peoples’ reactions to receiving the supplies due to face masks, but one moment stood out to her. A magnet school in New Haven had been turned into a “makeshift respite center,” for people who had contracted COVID, but weren’t sick enough to stay in a hospital. 

Leubner remembers seeing posters hung up for different clubs, including astrology, and said it resembled a ghost town — she said she thought to herself, “oh my gosh, this is like the apocalypse.” But next to those posters were piles of donated food, water and clothing, which she and her team inventoried.

“I just remember there was these little goodie bags of organic fruit chews and water and a granola bar, and I was like ‘this is the cutest thing ever,’” Leubner said. “They had attached little notes saying ‘you’re heroes’ or ‘get well soon’ and stuff like that. I remember tearing up. I was reading all these little notes and just thinking about how badly people need to connect with each other and also how creative and resilient humans are.”

In June, Leubner received a $2,500 grant for her research from the People’s United Center for Women & Business and will continue to refine her research going forward. But beyond her time at Quinnipiac, she plans to join doctors “on-the-ground,” and to become an advocate for individuals who are homeless. 

“I just think that we have the ability to be such incredible advocates and this wonderful opportunity to really stand up for our patients and what they need,” Leubner said.