Every year, a medical school course that I teach invites two speakers to tell students their compelling stories about how being homeless negatively affected their health. Conversely, I care for patients whose declining health led to homelessness because they were unable to work and fell too far behind on mortgage or rent payments. The American Academy of Family Physicians and other professional societies, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, encourage their members to provide compassionate and unbiased care to homeless persons, and a recent article in American Family Physician reviewed strategies for managing clinical conditions that commonly occur in this population.
The standard approach to chronically homeless persons with mental illness and/or substance dependence has been to improve control of these underlying medical problems before placing them in permanent housing. The trouble is that not knowing where one will eat or sleep from day to day is about the worst possible environment to improve mental health or recover from addiction. Dr. Kelly Doran and colleagues reported in the New England Journal of Medicine on a pilot program that used New York State Medicaid funds to house high-risk homeless patients:
Placing people who are homeless in supportive housing — affordable housing paired with supportive services such as on-site case management and referrals to community-based services — can lead to improved health, reduced hospital use, and decreased health care costs, especially when frequent users of health services are targeted.
New York health officials hope that much of its investment will pay for itself by reducing acute and emergency care visits, but so far has been unable to convince the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (which only pays for nursing homes through Medicaid) to make a similar investment. Despite a lack of federal support, this "Housing First" approach has been successful in other states too, notably Utah, as James Surowiecki recently described in The New Yorker. Like it because it's the decent thing to do, because it saves money, or both, Housing First has garnered support across the political spectrum.
Some may view advocating for Housing First policies to improve the health of homeless persons to be outside of the scope of family medicine, but I don't. I have come to realize that some of my patients will not be able to fully address their chronic health issues until they have roofs over their heads and the stability and security that comes with having a place to call home. As Surowiecki observed, this approach can be viewed as a cost-effective form of preventive health care:
Our system has a fundamental bias toward dealing with problems only after they happen, rather than spending up front to prevent their happening in the first place. We spend much more on disaster relief than on disaster preparedness. And we spend enormous sums on treating and curing disease and chronic illness, while underinvesting in primary care and prevention. This is obviously costly in human terms. But it’s expensive in dollar terms, too. The success of Housing First points to a new way of thinking about social programs: what looks like a giveaway may actually be a really wise investment.