Health Issues / homelessness / housing

Prescription for Health: Supportive Housing

by Bill O’Leary

Homelessness and health share a relationship that impacts the individual and the community as a whole. The experience of being homeless will compromise the health of the individual; the systemic factors/issues connected with homelessness impact health care resources from both a fiscal and care provider perspective. The value of supportive housing as a micro/macro “remedy” to both these points is undervalued and under supported yet has demonstrated great efficacy in our community.

The health of the individual is impacted by the experience of homelessness and the greater the time spent living in this experience the greater the impact to their health (Street Health Report). This point can be better understood if we relate it to a health message we encounter almost daily; healthy diet. Diet is a contributing factor to both good and poor health (diabetes, heart disease). If we have no control over the food we are permitted to intake, and the quality of that food, then we will experience a negative impact on our health; this is the reality of a person experiencing homelessness. From diet make the connection to exposure to the elements that the individual encounters daily (cold, rain, extreme heat) and then add to this the overcrowding of emergency shelters where there is a high risk for TB exposure and your “bunk mates” are lice, scabies and bed bugs (Street Health Report). When discussing a mere three issues that are directly connected to homelessness it becomes more evident that the health of the individual is impacted by the experience of being homeless.

There is a direct relationship to homelessness, existing gaps within our health care system and health care dollars. The CMHA provides a clear link to homelessness and health care dollars; in Toronto when supportive housing  was provided to 56 homeless individuals hospital costs dropped from $1.4 million dollars to $173,000 (We Are Neighbours). It is not quality of life for a member of our community that stimulates change it is the fiscal bottom line; it is tragic that this is the reality of our sense of community responsibility but it is the argument we have been forced to present in order to effect change.

To reduce health care spending there must be prevention measures in place such as vaccination, testing, follow up appointments; also the “patient” must follow the treatment recommendations provided by the physician (ie. rest, healthy diet, reduce daily stressors…). I have provided a basic outline of how health care dollars can be reduced but now I need to work out how a person experiencing homelessness can put in place these easy to follow steps that I, a person with secure, safe, affordable housing, struggle with but am able to complete with the support of my community (family, friends, colleagues); is someone yelling the words “supportive housing” yet?

Supportive housing will not “remedy” all the complex factors connected to homelessness but it will provide a step towards prevention, and follow through, measures which will reduce health care spending and more importantly improve the quality of life for the individual. It is the individual that matters most and providing the basic human right to have safe, affordable and secure housing will be felt by the community as a whole.


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