Improving health outcomes for homeless linked to housing

Health care providers in Colorado have been drawn into America’s homelessness crisis, and are adding institutional weight into a push for solutions – according to a new report by independent health journalist Michele Cohen Marill.

Marill pointed to one “aha” moment experienced by physician Sarah Stella, who saw many people experiencing homelessness seeking emergency care at Denver Health.

“She had patients coming in with severe frostbite and other types of injuries,” said Marill. “They would get patched up, they would be discharged, and ended up back on the streets. And then within a brief period of time, she would see them back in the ER.”

One patient living outdoors had severe frostbite, which required several toes to be amputated. He was discharged to a shelter, but because it was relatively warm he chose to sleep outside.

He awoke covered in snow and went back to the emergency room with frostbite on his remaining toes.

Stella then went to work, connecting area health providers to nonprofits and foundations to find ways to break this cycle.

In October of 2022, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless opened the Stout Street Recuperative Care Center, which provides a recovery space for people who are well enough to be released from the hospital – but still need time to heal.

Marill said on average clients stay two weeks – although some need prolonged care, such as chemotherapy, that may last as long as two or three months.

“Patients can be discharged safely. It’s really a life saver,” said Marill. “Many of these individuals would be very medically fragile if they were just living on the streets.”

Last December, Denver Health opened a converted floor of an administrative building to provide transitional housing for recovering patients.

Clients are connected to case managers who help them find permanent housing and other services.

Marill said these sorts of interventions show that health care institutions can play a critical role in communities.

“Poor health is both a cause and an effect of homelessness,” said Marill. “Health care, and specifically health systems, are an important part of the solution.”

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