Homeless winding up in hospital

Hawaii’s homeless problem is no secret. But the impact of homelessness, what it does to people, may not be as well known.

The most recent annual Point in Time count — a census of people experiencing homelessness — showed a 9 percent decrease in the number of homeless individuals across the state. It was the first decline in eight years.

This year’s count found 7,220 homeless individuals across Hawaii compared to 7,921 in 2016.

Hawaii County saw a 32 percent decline in homeless individuals and Maui County saw a 22 percent decrease compared to 2016. Oahu saw a half percent increase in homeless individuals.

Homelessness on Kauai dropped 7 percent in the 2017 Hawaii Statewide Homeless Point-In-Time count.

On Kauai, the count reported 412 homeless persons compared to 442 last year. The figure accounts for 297 unsheltered homeless persons and 115 sheltered.

The reason we bring up homelessness today can be traced to a study by University of Hawaii researchers who found homelessness and inadequate housing are major causes of unnecessary hospitalizations.

The finding is from an ongoing project to understand and reduce potentially preventable hospitalizations for diabetes and heart disease in Hawaii under principal investigator Tetine Sentell, an associate professor in the UH Office of Public Health Studies.

“We were interested in patient perspectives on the role of housing as contributing to their potentially preventable hospitalization,” Sentell said.

Added Sentell: “Patients said it was hard to care for their diabetes or heart disease when they were living without amenities such as refrigeration, running water, a stove or a safe place to store medications. Patients also mentioned the challenges of following diet plans when canned goods were the only available foods at the shelters and food banks.”

It’s not rocket science, folks. Lack of housing can lead to lack of health. There’s no way around it. Homelessness, for many, is the start of a downward spiral that leads to the hospital.

Lead author of the study, Michelle Quensell, a UH public health graduate, said they talked to 90 patients, and almost 25 percent reported a housing-related issue as a major factor in hospitalization.

“About half of these patients were homeless, noting the high cost of housing in Hawaii,” she said.

In other areas, homelessness is down.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates the nation experienced a 23 percent reduction among homeless families, a 47 percent drop in veteran homelessness, and a 27 percent decline in individuals experiencing chronic homelessness. This national estimate is based upon data reported by about 3,000 cities and counties across the nation.

Some are seeking solutions to this correlation between houselessness and illness.

Several major health providers in Hawaii have recently created innovative new programs to address social determinants, including housing, within the health-care setting to improve health-care quality and reduce health-care costs.

Kauai Economic Opportunity is doing all it can, and with the help of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, recently sent some homeless to family on the Mainland, where they can get fresh starts and roofs over their heads.

While we certainly encourage people to do all they can to get by on their own, such as getting a job to pay for housing, we also believe that when people are down, those who can should offer them a hand up.

Some homeless previously told TGI the scope of the culture toward homelessness has changed.

“When you didn’t have one house, people would welcome you in their house. Now, it’s not like that. Now, it’s dog eat dog,” one said.

Another person, who aspires to own a house one day, said instead of paying for rent, their money goes for living expenses.

“It takes money to live on the street. You gotta eat. You gotta have good health. You gotta do these things along the way that will cost money.”

The key words there are “good health.”

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