By Hannah Hunthausen, Program Coordinator, Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry
Imagine living and sleeping day after day in your car in 90 degree heat, shuttling your daughter to and from work and trying to get yourself to dialysis three times per week. This is the situation Lana and her 23-year-old daughter Rachel found themselves in this summer. Mother and daughter were evicted from their two-bedroom apartment in Renton last year when Lana’s kidneys failed and she could no longer work to keep up on rent. Like many families, they opted to hold on to their vehicle and the little bit of security and freedom it still offers them; they can keep their stuff relatively safe, and get to appointments and work more easily than if they were living at a shelter. Lana and Rachel are just one of several families and individuals profiled in Real Change’s ongoing series on vehicle residents in Seattle (see the 7/22/15 article “Nowhere to Go” and the 7/29/15 article “The Long Road Home”). 
All this to state the obvious: those without a stable place to call home – whether they’re living in their vehicle, in a shelter, on the street, or couchsurfing from place to place – are vulnerable and often have health conditions (physical and/or mental) that are either brought on or exacerbated by their situation. Some may become homeless because of a health crisis, like Lana.
In the post below, Anna Markee, Senior Manager at Building Changes, discusses the intersections of homelessness and health and offers ideas and hope for new kinds of collaboration and ways to help.
Forging New Partnerships in Family Homelessness and Health
by Anna Markee, Senior Manager at Building Changes
It’s not always easy for organizations to reach across silos to one another, but that’s exactly what a group of local leaders working on homelessness and health care are doing. Their goal: ensure the region’s most vulnerable families benefit from big changes and new opportunities in health care.
Many leaders were meeting one another for the first time at the May 27th event, Leading Across Systems: Exploring Opportunities to Connect Family Homelessness and Health, hosted by Building Changes and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The group discussed ways they could partner across systems to make sure that every family has a home and access to the care they need. The theme of the day: health begins where you live and play.
While it seems obvious that being homeless isn’t good for your health, research reveals more striking impacts than you might imagine. One study conducted in five US cities discovered that homelessness during pregnancy poses unique dangers: prenatal homelessness increased the risk of a baby being born prematurely and with low birth weight. Low birth weight puts babies on difficult life course, with increased risk of infant mortality, respiratory disorders, and neurodevelopmental disabilities.
Homeless parents often suffer from high rates of illness as well. Sometimes an unmanaged illness can lead to homelessness, through loss of a job or crushing medical debt (see local couple Nick and Charlotte’s story, recorded as part of the StoryCorps: Finding Our Way Project). Symptoms can get worse if a family becomes homeless. Data from Building Changes’ evaluation of permanent supportive housing shows that half of the parents have a chronic medical condition and over 60% have a behavioral health diagnosis. These families report challenges accessing the care they need. While most are insured, they often feel stigmatized in health care settings due to their homelessness or behavioral health needs.
The connections between homelessness and health are clear, and new solutions are beginning to come into focus – especially in Washington State, which has been a national leader in this complex work. One example is a new program launching in Snohomish County focused on pregnant or parenting homeless young adults. Cocoon House, a leader in serving homeless young people, will provide dedicated support to quickly identify homeless or at-risk youth who become pregnant, ensure they have access to housing, and work with local health care providers so that their babies have the opportunity for a healthy start in life.
While difficult in a fast paced clinic environment, health care professionals can help by remaining patient and non-judgmental. Similarly, service providers often struggle to keep the lights on and keep up with demand; finding the time to develop partnerships is a challenge. Nevertheless, these agencies are finding that often, by working together, they can achieve their goals and better serve families.
Regardless of your role, here are some steps that anyone can take to help homeless families lead a healthy life:
- Many people still don’t know that they are eligible for free or low-cost health insurance. Make sure people you know or serve are enrolled in health insurance through Washington HealthPlanfinder.
- If you are involved with a meal program, consider ways to add more fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains to the meals and reduce high calorie, high sodium, high-fat foods and sugary beverages. Public Health-Seattle & King County has tips
- Love to garden? Consider organizing a Giving Garden on unused land such as church property to grow fruits and vegetables and donate them to a local food bank.
- Volunteer at the upcoming Seattle/King County Clinic, a four-day volunteer-driven clinic providing a full range of free dental, vision and medical care to underserved and vulnerable populations in the region on October 22-25 at Key Arena. Active or retired health professionals are needed as well as non-clinical general volunteers.
- Share this article with people in your faith community.
Building Changes is a nonprofit that transforms the ways communities work together to end family and youth homelessness. We act as a “compassionate engineer,” designing and implementing a better system to make homelessness rare, brief and one time. Our goal: reduce youth and family homelessness by 50 percent by 2020.
We believe that homelessness can be significantly reduced when nonprofits, government, and philanthropy work seamlessly together, in a high-performing system that tailors solutions to the needs of each youth and family. (Source: Seattle Foundation website)
 Names have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.
 “Bangarang Village,” the vehicle resident community Lana and Rachel joined earlier in the summer, , included a pregnant single soon-to-be-mom suffering from arthritis, a couple with a baby on the way, a mentally and physically disabled Vietnam veteran, and a mentally ill deaf man, among others. The group had banded together for security and community in a city that has very limited affordable housing and limited shelter as well as a slew of regulations and scant options for those trying to get by living in their vehicles. (The group was recently forced to disband and vacate the area they had occupied along N Northlake Way – some have found housing, others have gone to shelter or have found other safe places to park with the help and collaboration of community activists, the police, generous faith communities, and Road to Housing case managers from the City. Follow Homelessness in Seattle on Facebook for updates.)