When Sister Susanne Hartung invited me to participate in the recent Point in Time Homelessness Count in King County, Wash., I jumped at the opportunity. Homelessness is a vexing crisis across every Providence St. Joseph Health community, and I always gain a better personal understanding of the issue whenever I can get out of the office and be with people who were or are homeless.
The homelessness count, which takes place once a year in the middle of the night, aims to gauge the number of people living on the streets of Greater Seattle, which has one of the worst homelessness problems in the country. In 2018, the King County tally was 12,112 – a 4 percent increase over 2017. Sadly, that number could be even higher when the report on this year’s count is released.
An important voice for our task forces
For me, the most meaningful part of the night was meeting our guide, a gentleman named Brian, who has struggled with homelessness. As Sister Susanne drove, he showed us where we might find people. I was skeptical about whether we would spot anyone in the affluent suburb where we were assigned to look. Sure enough, even there, we did find people, camped out on sidewalks, huddled in bus shelters, living in their vehicles. Brian knew exactly where to look.
Over the course of the night, Brian shared his personal story and explained that he became homeless while working in a winter camp for the homeless in Fairbanks, Alaska. He eventually moved to Seattle and today stays at a shelter in East King County. He’s passionate about ending homelessness and is committed to doing whatever he can to help others who don’t have a safe place to live.
Sister Susanne and I have kept in touch with Brian since that night. A big takeaway for me is that PSJH needs people like Brian to help us address the issue in our local communities. As PSJH forms homelessness task forces in each of our regions, I’ve invited him to participate on the task force focused on King County. His perspective will be invaluable. Just as we include the voice of our patients on our patient advisory councils, we need to make sure the voices of those with the lived experience of homelessness help shape our strategies for tackling the problem in our communities.
Housing and health are inextricably linked
Our vision, health for a better world, is driven by a belief that health is a human right. Our founding sisters understood better than anyone that housing and health are inextricably linked and have ministered to the needs of the homeless since their earliest days. That’s why we invest strategically in community programs and partnerships across the Western U.S., including 16 supportive housing locations that we own and operate for more than 900 residents with low incomes.
The correlation between housing and health was made clear to us again in our recent assessments of the mental health and Medicaid needs of our communities. In both cases, homelessness consistently emerged as a significant underlying issue. The other alarming trend we see is a surge in baby boomers who will be retiring and unable to afford a place to live. That, combined with a rise in Alzheimer’s, tell us we need to brace for a senior housing crisis like no other as the baby boomer generation ages.
The extent of the problem calls us to participate in new and innovative partnerships that offer sustainable solutions. For example, we are proud to be part of a bold national initiative with Catholic Charities and local archdioceses to reduce homelessness by 20 percent. Catholic Charities has selected two PSJH communities – Portland and Spokane – to be among five initial participants in the Healthy Housing Initiative. The plan is to reduce chronic homelessness by converting available property owned by Catholic organizations into affordable housing units and by making health and social services available to those in need.
Volunteers make a difference
You’ll be hearing much more about our efforts to reduce homelessness. In the meantime, I want to thank all of our caregivers who serve those who are homeless in our emergency departments, hospitals, clinics and community programs. Thank you for doing so with compassion and respect for the human dignity of each of these individuals.
I also encourage everyone – especially our leaders – to volunteer with our community partners. You can find a number of opportunities through our Volunteers in Partnership website. For me, being out volunteering gives me a greater personal appreciation for the challenges in our communities. There is nothing like meeting and talking to people on the front lines of service. The other night in Seattle was the perfect example. The greatest outcome of that night was connecting with Brian and translating that connection to solutions.
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