The first thing you notice about Dr. Coley King is his mustache. It's a handlebar, and he had it before handlebars were cool — three, maybe four years? Not that he'll brag about that. “It just showed up one day,” he says laconically. “It may leave one day.”
King is pretty chill for a physician: He loves punk rock and used to surf before he became obsessed with mountain biking. He bikes to work every day. “I ride a bike because you can be 7 years old for at least 10 minutes every day,” he says. “Until you get to work — then you tear your hair out.”
King, 44, might have more reason than most to do that tearing. He practices street medicine, treating the homeless where they live, taking the clinic to them. His goal: getting them healthy enough to get off the streets and into Section 8 housing.
He loves his work, but he admits it's something he'd never imagined doing. King grew up in tiny Meeker, Colo. — a “happy accident” who came along more than a decade after his three siblings. His dad was the superintendent of schools; his mom, a high school English teacher. Their dedication to public service provided the foundation for his career.
But it wasn't until he'd been practicing for a few years that he found his calling. In med school, King says, “I had no idea what street medicine was. I don't think anybody knew.” He thought he'd be a family doctor.
His first job after graduation was at an urgent care facility in Montclair (“the wrong side of the tracks from Claremont”). He liked the work but says, “The burnout factor is about seven years when you don't know your patients. I lasted four.”
King's wife, a pediatrician, persuaded him to take a job right in their neighborhood at Venice Family Center, a Rose Avenue clinic that treats homeless, low-income and uninsured patients.
Six months after his hire, the clinic launched a street medicine program, visiting local homeless people in a van one morning each week. King was on board immediately: “It sounded crazy, and I'm the likely one to do something crazy around the clinic.”
Nine years later, one morning a week has become three. (King also treats the homeless at a Santa Monica drop-in center two afternoons a week.) He praises his colleague in the street medicine program, Dr. Theresa Brehove, as “very patient” but says, “I'm a little more of a bulldog. 'Hey, we need to see a psychiatrist, man.' Or, 'Do what you can to drink, instead of a bottle of vodka, half a bottle of vodka.' It's all about harm reduction.”
His patients can be wary. “They're streetwise. 'Who's going to take advantage of me?' They're very tough characters.” But he's persistent: “If they trust me, I can help them.”
Progress can be painstaking. “It may take a year to really connect,” he admits. “Or they may tell you to fuck off.”
Once, he recalls, he was bicycling with his 7-year-old daughter when a local guy walked up and snarled at them. “Is that another patient?” she asked immediately.
He shrugs. When you've got a handlebar mustache, there's no point trying to hide.
“As long as I've got this,” he says, “I don't need a business card.”