Exploring How Lack of Suitable Housing Affects Individuals and Public Health

By Chris Adams

Homelessness and poor health: It can be a vicious cycle that’s difficult to stop.

People in poor health often lose their incomes and eventually their shelter. Once they experience homelessness, their health only gets worse.

“Homelessness makes it harder to treat every condition,” said Bobby Watts, CEO of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Watts explored the interplay between poor health and homelessness, as well as potential ways to alleviate both.

The connection between health and shelter can sometimes be obvious; other times, it’s more hidden.

In the winter, extreme cold can lead to hyperthermia; in the summer, blistering temperatures can lead to heat stroke. But beyond that, poor nutrition and trauma weaken the immune system, making it tough to fight off diseases. Living in crowded shelters promotes the transmission of diseases such as tuberculosis; living on the streets or in encampments increases the transmission of hepatitis A.

Even if people are diagnosed with a medical condition, being homeless makes it much more difficult to treat it. “You can’t say, ‘Stay off your feet, stay in bed and rest,’ ” Watts said.

How does all this play out in life expectancy? The average life span in the United States is about 80 years. For those living on the streets, it’s about 50.

Watts discussed the latest statistics on homelessness, including the methods used by government officials to get an accurate count of people without shelter. He also detailed some of the success stories in combatting homelessness – such as the effort to reduce the numbers of homeless veterans.

And he talked about the Healthcare for the Homeless Program, which has 300 locations nationwide and at least one in every state. Those programs served more than 1 million people in 2017.

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