Due to a difficult home life, Robbie Finch made the tough decision at 17 years old to drop out of high school and live on his own.
Finch’s journey to attending Georgia State University and becoming a physician assistant helping the homeless in Los Angeles wasn’t easy.
“It was a lot of emotional and physical turmoil,” he said. “I had to withdraw from school and work full time just to feed myself.”
Finch said he struggled with substance abuse as a teen, worked odd jobs as a delivery driver and lived out of his car behind a local bar for nearly two years before getting back on his feet. He eventually found some stability living with friends and decided to return to high school. He graduated from Independence High School, a nontraditional school in Roswell, Ga., at the age of 21.
Finch had not thought college was possible, but his counselor at Independence High let him know he qualified for Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship as well as living assistance. Finch, who was interested in urban studies, decided to pursue an anthropology degree at Georgia State.
“My peers and professors became like a second family to me,” Finch said. “They made me realize that there could be a life for me after graduation.”
Finch, who graduated from Georgia State in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, went on to get a master’s in anthroplogy from the Univeristy of California before eventually earning a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies from the University of Southern California in 2021. Now he works for HealthCare in Action, an organization that provides healthcare to the homeless population through a specialized field of medicine known as street medicine.
Equipped with a medical van, supplies to address injuries, an ultrasound machine and various medications, Finch and his team of medical professionals search the streets of Los Angeles, looking to help unhoused people.
“This is one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever had,” Finch said. “You realize how fascinating and complex the people are that you run into and you get the opportunity to break down the barriers that have kept them out of clinical institutions.”
Throughout the day, Finch and his team travel to various encampments and provide social services, housing support and primary care or acute care services, including substance use disorder treatment, psychiatric care, and the management of chronic infectious diseases such as syphilis, hepatitis C, TB and HIV.
“I wanted to help people struggling with experiences of displacement,” Finch said. “Living in L.A., the sheer magnitude of the unsheltered population is astounding.”
In part, Finch said he’s drawn to his work because of the struggles he had to overcome being homeless in high school and to get clean.
“My experiences of being homeless myself, dealing with substance use as a teenager and getting out of that situation and finding myself at Georgia State and finding an academic community that felt like a second home really impacted my decision to work with unsheltered people,” Finch said.
—Photo provided by Robbie Finch