When patients are struggling with homelessness in addition to multiple chronic medical conditions and social barriers, health is often their lowest priority. “Our care management intervention is completely useless for patients experiencing homelessness,” says our founder and Executive Director Dr. Jeff Brenner. “If you’re living on a park bench and you’ve got heart failure, navigating and coordinating your care isn’t going to work.”
What does work for these patients? Giving them homes and social support, no strings attached. Since last fall, we have been working with a number of local organizations to house 50 of our patients with the most complex conditions in apartments and houses throughout Camden County using the Housing First model. All 50 housing vouchers provided by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs have been filled, and 21 patients of those patients housed so far. We have already seen the enormous difference that housing makes, and as we have become better acquainted with the system, our placement of patients has accelerated. Six patients were housed last week.
After a long period of homelessness, even the most mundane parts of a house can be overwhelming. For Glenda, who became homeless after leaving her abusive husband, making the bed in her new apartment brought her to tears. “She had never had her own bed,” Camden Coalition Social Work Coordinator Latonya Oliver said. “After she had a stroke, her husband made her sleep in a reclining chair.” Another newly housed patient who goes by Mr. Cook could not stop jumping, clapping, and crying as he opened and closed the refrigerator door in his new kitchen.
The fact that these apartments come fully furnished, thanks to our partnership with the Volunteers of America— Delaware Valley, is an important part of the program, says Social Work Manager Laura Buckley. “It’s not just a house, it’s a home, and so that comes with furniture and a kitchen table.”
Another important feature of the Housing First model is that having a criminal background does not, for the most part, exclude patients from accessing housing. Contact with the criminal justice system makes it much more difficult for people to access traditional subsidized housing. This was the situation faced by Maria, who was kicked out of her Section 8 housing over a year ago when she was arrested as a result of her son dealing drugs out of her apartment. This arrest made her more eligible, rather than less, for our Housing First program, because it represents a barrier to accessing safe and affordable housing. Maria moved into her new apartment last week.
Once patients are housed through Housing First, they are in a safe, stable environment and are better able to make the changes in their lives that lead to better health. Kem is a recently housed patient whose chronic health problems largely stem from a history of alcohol abuse. “I feel good now. I was still depressed and my drinking was way up when I first met ya’ll… I changed my atmosphere, wasn’t around the same everyday people. This here [apartment] has cut me down on my drinking cause I’m here.” When asked if there was anything we could do better, he said, “Ain’t too much more better you can do. I’ve come a long way from where I was at.”