Housing has a direct connection to health, activist professor says

May 1, 2022


Having a home is inextricably linked with health in the view of Tim Huffman, an associate professor in communications at Saint Louis University whose research and writing topics include social justice, nonprofit organizing and homelessness.


He points out that people living on the streets have special vulnerabilities like higher risks of becoming crime victims or being exposed to infection-causing germs and viruses. "Living without a home is just, frankly, hard on one's body," said Huffman, who talked about his work and experiences as an activist and advocate for the homeless during a CHA webinar March 9.

His online discussion titled "Health Needs of Vulnerable Populations" was part of CHA's Emerging Topics in Catholic Health Care Ethics series. It was co-sponsored by the Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics at Saint Louis University.

Tents shelter the unhoused across from City Hall in Seattle in March. In Seattle and other cities elected leaders are increasingly removing encampments and pushing other strict measures to keep people from sleeping on city streets.
Associated Press /Ted S. Warren

In addition to teaching, Huffman works with several social service programs. He provides faculty support to student volunteers at Saint Louis University's winter emergency shelter and is the university's representative to a coalition working to end homelessness called the St. Louis City Continuum of Care. He also is the community facilitator for the St. Louis Housing is Healthcare project that connects people to housing, health care and other services.

He said he got interested in serving those on the margins of society early in life when he began reading "dangerous books" including The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne.

Just before beginning his work on his doctorate in human communication, he by choice lived on the streets for six months to better understand the challenges faced by those with nowhere else to go. "It so shaped the trajectory of my intellectual life that I wanted my Ph.D. to be in service to people and poverty," he said. Huffman added that his dissertation was on "compassionate care within nonprofits serving homeless young adults."

National surveys count about 600,000 Americans as homeless on any given night. However, Huffman considers housing insecurity to be a spectrum on which everyone falls because the risk of becoming unsheltered is universal, whether it be through sickness, economic insecurity, natural disaster or man-made crisis. The further someone moves from secure housing, the more their likelihood of having related health needs grows, he said.

Because of that correlation, Huffman said health care providers and systems have a responsibility to find out about patients' housing situations and, if needed, link them to organizations that provide shelter and long-term housing assistance. He said he sees this as particularly important in Catholic health care because part of its mission "is to connect with broader communities."

He cited careful discharge planning as one of the important ways for health care providers to ensure that patients continue their recovery in a safe place. He shared a story about a disoriented patient who was released by a hospital, dropped off by taxi at the office of a social service agency before business hours and, within an hour, fatally injured after wandering into traffic.

"That's about as suboptimal of a discharge as I can possibly imagine," he said.

To ascertain what patients' housing and other social needs are requires compassionate, patient-centered and culturally sensitive care that builds trusting relationships, Huffman said. To ensure those needs are addressed requires that health care providers establish networks with social service agencies to create a continuum of care, he said.

"We will not build a just society through random acts of kindness, that's not how you build the Kingdom of God," he added.

Among the places where he suggested that care providers can get information on housing options and links to programs is the website of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Ideally, Huffman said he would like to live in a society where clinicians could write an unhoused patient a prescription for permanent supportive shelter "and by this, I mean a prescription for a house."


Copyright © 2022 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.