The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on homelessness and health. The reality is, when you’re homeless, you’re at a higher risk for developing health problems. Beyond the individual, the pandemic has also made it clear that community health directly impacts individual health.
With COVID, we see people taking actions to improve the health of their communities every day. We see people wearing masks, staying home when they are sick, and donating to those in need. There is new understanding that community health affects us all.
As we look towards our community members and start to see more disparities, it’s important to take note of what is putting our neighbors in danger. And, one of the biggest threats to individual and community health is homelessness. Living unsheltered puts people at immediate risk of danger, health problems, and even worse.
But, what are the health risks people face when they’re homeless? We talked to Peggy, an RN Case Manager who works with individuals experiencing homelessness and helps them find stable housing.
Q: How do you see homelessness affecting the physical health of our clients?
Peggy: I have clients who have had serious infections related to their inability to keep wounds clean. People with diabetes have a terrible time keeping their insulin refrigerated and frequently reach both hypo and hyperglycemic crises. Frequent or recurring bouts of pneumonia can result in hospitalization. I also see people who are paranoid and “just want to be alone” and have a very difficult time in shelters.
Q: What kinds of changes in health do you see in clients after they are housed?
Peggy: Housing makes an incredible difference. Having a warm, safe place to stay has all but eliminated one client’s ER visits. He had frequent bouts of pneumonia when staying at a shelter, but because he spent all day every day outside, he fell victim to pneumonia four times in one year. This also costs taxpayers thousands of dollars. Another client no longer needs oxygen to sleep at night. I have a client who had over 30 hospitalizations before we found housing for him. He has a seizure disorder, and we now have him set up with primary care as well as specialty care. He takes his meds (delivered to him weekly) and has had only ten ER visits in the last eight years.
Q: Why is health care difficult to access for those who are experiencing homelessness?
Peggy: They know the hospital HAS to take them, so they wait until it’s an emergency. We teach clients the benefits of having a primary care doctor who actually knows you and will take care of their chronic conditions. Unfortunately for many of our homeless clients, everything is an emergency. They are so used to living in the here and now. We teach them how to prevent illness and the reason for regular checkups. Many times, our clients have self-medicated to stop the voices or to deal with pain and hunger, and they are intoxicated in some way and may present poorly to the provider.
Guild Tackles Homelessness
Homelessness is a dire issue that requires immediate attention. That’s exactly what we’re doing at Guild–putting our attention where it matters most. From a variety of housing programs to health-related services, we help people find housing and improve their health. To learn more, call our Community Access line at (651) 925-8490.
Interested in supporting our lifesaving services? Donate here.