We’ve all witnessed it at major intersections: a homeless man or woman with a cardboard sign trying to coax a few dollars from motorists stopped at red lights. When the light turns green and we hit the accelerator, we leave behind an individual who not only has no place to live, but may have no health care of any kind.
It’s well known that mental health and addiction issues are rampant among the homeless and drive many of them to the streets in the first place. But many are physically unhealthy as well. The diseases they often suffer from include:
*Substance abuse and addiction
*Wound & skin infections
*High blood pressure and heart disease
According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC), the homeless are also at higher risk of communicable diseases from living on the streets or spending time in crowded shelters. Even if seen by a shelter medical professional, there’s not much opportunity for treatment follow-up for high blood pressure, diabetes, and other ailments. The NHCHC says the homeless are three to four times more likely to die prematurely than people who live in traditional housing.
Homeless children face a dire health care situation as well. A recent study by North Carolina State University found that 25 percent of homeless boys and girls have mental health issues. That adds up to an estimated 625,000 homeless children who need, but often don’t receive, mental health treatment.
In addition to inadequate health care, the study notes that homeless children are more likely to be exposed to domestic and neighborhood violence, which leads to developmental delays and social and emotional problems.
So, how do we do a better job of providing health care services to homeless adults and children? I suggest you start small. What does that mean? Consider these statistics from 2014:
In January 2014, there were 578,424 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States.
- Of that number, 216,197 are people in families, and
362,163 are individuals.
- About 15 percent of the homeless population – 84,291 – are considered “chronically homeless” individuals, and
- About 9 percent of homeless people- 49,933 – are veterans (many of whom have given much for us, how can we now help them?).
The numbers have only increased since January 2014, with now more than 650,000 people homeless in America on any given night. That’s a lot of people, and a seemingly big, daunting problem. Starting small doesn’t mean giving some change or a few bucks to somebody on a street corner, it means getting involved at shelters and addiction treatment programs in your town or city. For medical professionals, it means volunteering time and using your contacts to evaluate and treat people with acute or chronic conditions. For everyone, it means finding out what programs or services are available in your community, and then volunteering with your time, your talents, or your resources to promote and aid those programs.
Here in Houston we have many great organizations to assist people struggling with homelessness, mental illness, and addiction. I volunteer at several of them, but The Women’s Home is my favorite group because they are fully committed to changing the lives of the women they take in and treat. This means treating addicted and mentally ill women in a safe, supportive inpatient facility for months or years instead of a few weeks. It means providing the clients (as they call them!) with treatment, counseling, and real life job skills. The Cottage Shop at The Women’s Home is a resale boutique that helps fund the programs and which gives the women a chance to develop productive skills. Most impressively, The Women’s Home includes an affordable housing facility, the Jane Cizik Garden Place, that provides permanent housing to women, including their children, that allows them to maintain sobriety, receive ongoing treatment and counseling, and to develop long-term, successful employment. I was amazed when I learned we had this program in Houston. Does your community have similar programs? Whether they do or not, the programs that are available need your help and support (financial and otherwise). Start by helping one organization or one person; whatever you do will be a small step in providing help to someone in need. Seeing the lives that are changed one person at a time will change your life!