Commentary: COVID-19 amplifies already urgent need for solutions to homelessness

April – May, 2020

By MIKE BUTLER, president of operations and strategy, Providence St. Joseph Health
May 15, 2020

Mike Butler

During an emergency, there are plenty of immediate decisions to be made. In health care, our response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been driven by urgent needs. It's about doing the right thing at the right moment. As we pivot from an all-consuming crisis toward a slow recovery, it's important that we include a more equitable framework in responding to homelessness. We need reform that creates sustainable solutions for the community as a whole.

In this moment we are seeing two public health crises amplifying each other. The COVID-19 pandemic affects everyone, but some are experiencing a disproportionate impact. One highly vulnerable group comprises families and individuals without homes.

At Providence, we believe housing is health. Not having a safe, secure home is putting thousands of people experiencing homelessness at greater risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19. The numbers of homeless testing positive is climbing. So we have stepped up and worked with local authorities and community partners to support and augment public health responses to this crisis within a crisis.

Our hospitals and community health experts have found four ways to help. We are investing community benefit funding in essential services, for short and long-term needs. We are finding every way possible to undergird our local public health departments, from providing something as simple as thermometers to sophisticated mobile medical units. We are strongly supporting fast-tracked housing and shelter. Finally, we are encouraging adoption of Housing First models that offer chronically homeless individuals permanent, affordable housing with supportive services.

As we look toward the future, I see one big question ahead. What will happen to unsheltered people when the pandemic threat is reduced? I believe we have the solutions in front of us. Communities are finding ways to house and care for those experiencing homelessness. If it can be done in the short term, surely we can work together to extrapolate these innovations into lasting resolutions.

In tough times, I am always inspired by the sisters who began our health system. When problems arose, these courageous women ran toward trouble. They showed up during cholera epidemics in 1800s Montreal, and during the 1918 flu pandemic here in the U.S. Not only did they roll up their own sleeves, but they galvanized communities to pitch in. This is how I see our role today. We are first responders in a pandemic. We are also called to be advocates and problem solvers for the vulnerable.

COVID-19 has magnified the inequities facing the homeless. Galvanized by the size and threat of the viral outbreak, we are collectively finding ways to move through obstacles to house thousands. When COVID-19 has abated, this cannot stop. Those who are housed must stay housed.

Even now, when many organizations are operating at less than capacity, it's been incredibly moving to receive offers of help from across the business spectrum and from so many in our communities. Innovation and collaboration is everywhere — helping us source protective gear for our caregivers, bringing food, partnering on clinical trials, and more. We can do the same to solve homelessness.

It's time to reform how we are reducing homelessness so that we can end this crisis. As we rebuild from COVID-19, let's take lessons from our response and restore lives with a safe and permanent place to call home. For Catholic health care, it is central to our mission and calling to serve the marginalized in our society.

Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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