Homelessness knows no bounds. It doesn’t discriminate based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, or family status, and it affects rural, urban, and suburban communities. Although the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in November shows that homelessness has declined since 2010, it continues to be a pervasive problem throughout the U.S. and across Michigan.
Individuals experiencing homelessness often have complex health conditions that range from infectious and chronic illness, to poor mental health, to substance abuse and beyond. Individuals living on the street, in shelters, or in transitional housing are 3-6 times more likely to become ill than people who live in homes, as reported by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.
What’s more, individuals who lack adequate housing face barriers to receiving the care they need, such as not knowing where to get care, a lack of transportation, and an inability to pay for care. As a result, they often go without care or turn to the local emergency room—a costly and ineffective source of care that results in uncoordinated, episodic treatment. Individuals with conditions that require ongoing treatment—such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, asthma—are at an even higher risk for poor health and death.
In 2012, Health Centers across the country served more than 1.1 million people experiencing homelessness, including 21,545 people in Michigan. Health Centers are community-based organizations that serve populations with limited access to health care. To assist them in planning for and delivering care to homeless individuals and families, some Health Centers, including 12 Michigan Health Centers, receive funding through the national Health Care for the Homeless program. These organizations provide primary medical, mental health, addiction, and social services, and staff conduct intensive outreach and case management to connect individuals with appropriate services.
In Flint, for example, Hamilton Community Health Network staff regularly visit local shelters and soup kitchens throughout Genesee County to educate homeless individuals on health-related topics and the services the Health Center provides, as well as to schedule appointments.
“Once I schedule an appointment, I let the shelter staff know the client has an appointment, and I provide a list of the items the client will need to bring with them to the appointment,” said Tiffany Jones, Homeless Outreach Coordinator, Hamilton Community Health Network.
In Grand Rapids, Cherry Street Health Services facilitates a homeless support group at Wyoming Community Health Center. The group meets every third Thursday of the month at 10 am ET to provide opportunities for homeless individuals to enroll in insurance plans for which they qualify, schedule health care appointments, fill prescriptions, and get connected to support services like the local food pantry, shelter, clothing, and transportation. Cherry Street also provides these same services at patient assistance services at the Heart of the City Health Center.
Health Centers also collaborate with other organizations to increase awareness of and combat homelessness in their local communities. One such occasion is the upcoming National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. Each year on or around the first day of winter, and the longest night of the year (this year, December 21), advocates, service providers, homeless and formerly homeless people, religious leaders, and concerned citizens join together in bringing attention to the tragedy of homelessness, while also taking the opportunity to remember our homeless neighbors and friends who have died. Co-sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless, National Consumer Advisory Board, and National Health Care for the Homeless Council, this year marks the 24th annual National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.
Advantage Health Centers in collaboration with the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, is hosting an ecumenical service at The Cathedral of St. Paul (4800 Woodward Ave., Detroit) on December 20 at 1 pm ET. Volunteers will serve hot meals and distribute warming gifts to homeless attendees. Detroit Central City Community Mental Health—which recently received funding to establish a new Health Center site to provide physical and behavioral health services to homeless and low-income individuals in mid-town Detroit—is helping to promote the event among its clients, of which 40% are homeless at the time of intake.
“These are just a few examples of the innovative work that Michigan Health Centers are undertaking every day to help connect homeless individuals and families with health care and other support services that they need to improve their well-being and quality of life,” said Lynda Meade, MPA, Director of Clinical Services, Michigan Primary Care Association.