Health experts at Inspira Medical Center Vineland saw some of the same faces come into their emergency room, day in and day out, but it wasn’t always for medical reasons.
Sometimes it was just to get out of the cold, to have a bed to rest in for a while, or to get something to eat. Chronically homeless, many of these patients lacked basic human necessities, which led hospital directors to take action and get to the root of these patients’ problems.
Inspira and other Cumberland County providers looked at the deep intersection of health and housing, spurring leaders to work with others in the community on a Housing First Collaborative, which works to find homes for chronically homeless people and reduce their need to rely solely on ER services for survival.
“We often see these patients turn to the ER for primary care,” said Dr. Scott Wagner, chairman of emergency medicine at Inspira Vineland, Bridgeton and Elmer. “We’re able to see what a huge barrier homelessness can be. To prevent the reoccurrence of (medical) symptoms, they need more.”
The Housing First program was developed under the M25 Initiative, a nonprofit organization made up of Cumberland city leaders, religious groups, social service experts, housing experts and others who also developed the Cumberland County Code Blue Coalition and a mini-grant program.
The housing program was awarded 42 state-issued vouchers last year to find places to live for chronically homeless people in the county. Directors said they hope to have everyone placed by the end of October.
Inspira donated $50,000 to Housing First in July to support program initiatives.
There are nearly 9,000 homeless people in New Jersey, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s November annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.
The report also showed New Jersey has achieved one of the largest decreases in the number of homeless people in the past decade. The state nearly halved its population between 2007 and 2016.
Monarch Housing Associates’ NJ Counts report, released in January, showed that while the number of homeless people in New Jersey seemed to be down from last year, the number of chronically homeless increased. There are 151 homeless people in Cumberland County, the report says.
Initiative leaders said they intend to eliminate homelessness in their county by 2020, a goal health providers say they support.
Robin Weinstein, M25 founder and president, said people at hospitals and jails are on the front lines of seeing chronically homeless residents. With their work in the housing program, Weinstein said experts can better identify people who could avoid ER visits and incarceration with secured housing.
Dave Moore, executive director of behavioral health at Inspira, said getting housing for chronically homeless people not only improves their lives, but reduces unnecessary health costs for providers and patients, and can lead to improvement in medical, dental and mental health care.
For a previous client who was in the hospital ER more than 80 times in three years, getting permanent housing resolved the root cause of many of his issues, Moore said.
“He would go in just get out of the cold, get something to eat or for a health condition exacerbated by the elements from being outside,” he said. “A simple cut could lead to hospitalization, and that can be very costly. That could have been remedied from a shower and a roof over their heads.”
Nearly half of homeless people had one or more disabilities, according to Monarch’s report. More than 2,000 had mental health issues, and others had substance use disorders, chronic health conditions, physical disabilities, developmental disabilities and HIV or AIDS.
Wagner said getting people adequate housing would drastically reduce ER visits and enable people to seek health care from primary care doctors and specialists, who can then begin to address medical or behavioral diseases and illnesses.
“If we don’t find a way to chip away at the long-term housing needs of a person who is homeless, your health efforts and discharge plans won’t keep that person stable in the community,” Moore said. “When we do find a solution for them, it’s a profound feeling when you look into someone’s eyes when they are taken off the streets.”