NHCW 2017: Breaking down the walls between housing & health

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

While he waited for his name to rise to the top of the Central City Concern housing wait list, Glenn O. lived out of his van in northwest Portland. As he walked back to where he had last parked, he found his van stolen. Gone. And with it, all his possessions, including his dentures.

Not long after, he moved into CCC housing. But even with a roof over his head, his troubles weren’t over. The doctor he had begun seeing wanted him to eat healthier, but without dentures, the list of foods he could eat was short. What he could eat, and how he ate them, led to intestinal problems and months of feeling sick and uncomfortable.

He called his insurance to see if they would cover new dentures. After all, they were stolen, not carelessly lost. They said that they could only cover new dentures once every 10 years. He’d only had his dentures for three.

Glenn went back to gumming his food, feeling unhealthy, and going against his doctor’s orders.

• • •

Moving into Central City Concern permanent housing is often reason enough for our new residents to feel good about their trajectory. The assurance of having a roof over one’s head feels like a giant step forward toward something better. Indeed, we know that having housing is one of the most significant determinants of health, so becoming a resident of CCC housing is definitely an occasion to cheer.

However, being housed isn’t a guarantee that better health is on the horizon. Even for residents of CCC housing, especially those with more complex health care needs, successfully engaging with CCC’s health care services—or any health care services, for that matter—can feel like a world away. The connection between housing and health care is crucial: how well a resident's health needs are met is tied closely to a resident’s likelihood of successfully staying in housing, says Dana Schultz, Central City Concern’s Permanent Supportive Housing Manager.

Though CCC provides both housing and health care, the nature of the programs, as well as privacy considerations, have traditionally made it difficult to share information between the two areas of service. But where Dana saw walls, she also saw an opportunity. The situation called for a way to put teeth behind a core belief that housing is health. That way? A program called Housed and Healthy (H+H).

"Our supportive housing program realized that we can’t distance ourselves from our residents’ health—it’s everything to them and it’s everything to us."

“We started Housed and Healthy as an initiative to better support our residents’ health by engaging with them where they are: in our housing,” Dana says. “Our supportive housing program realized that we can’t distance ourselves from our residents’ health—it’s everything to them and it’s everything to us.”

The Housed and Healthy program serves to improve the connection between health clinics—be it CCC’s own Old Town Clinic and Old Town Recovery Center or other community providers—and CCC’s supportive housing program, and vice versa. Since H+H started, all new residents of CCC’s permanent housing are given a health assessment so that staff can gain a fuller picture of the new tenant. They are asked about their health insurance status, any chronic health conditions they may be dealing with, and who, if anyone, their primary care provider is.

Perhaps most importantly, new residents are asked to sign a release of information, which unlocks the line of communication between CCC’s housing and health service programs.

“Once the two program areas can start talking, we can immediately map out a web of support,” says Dana. “Our clinic can flag the resident’s electronic health record to show that they live in our housing and note who their resident service coordinator is in case they need their help reaching out to a patient. In turn, our resident service coordinators can know which providers and clinics their tenants are connected to in case health issues arise.”

Housed and Healthy represents a big shift in the way supportive housing sees its role in the well-being of its residents. Housing staff are integral to extending health care out from the clinic setting into where their patients live.

The health assessment can also help H+H coordinators identify potential issues—related to their physical or mental health, or to substance use disorder—that, if unaddressed, could result in a resident losing their housing because of violations that put the safety and peace of the rest of the housing community at risk.

“In the past, we’ve seen people not succeed in our housing for reasons that, in retrospect, were preventable,” she says. “If we know what to look out for and the team of support people we can coordinate with, we can put out fires before they really burn down a person’s entire life.”

Housed and Healthy represents a big shift in the way supportive housing sees its role in the well-being of its residents. Housing staff are integral to extending health care out from the clinic setting into where their patients live. H+H even brings opportunities for health education, such as chronic pain workshops and classes like Cooking Matters, straight to residents. In doing so, the chances that patients continue to have a place to live increase.

Glenn, who had seen Dana in his building frequently as part of her work as the H+H Coordinator, approached her about his denture problem. His issues didn’t put him at high risk of losing his housing yet, but he wanted to follow his doctor’s eating advice. He was, after all, nearly three years sober, and he wanted to continue feeling healthier.

She promised him that she’d look into it. She consulted with Glenn’s Old Town Clinic care team. She researched resources and made countless phone calls. Several weeks later, she gave Glenn the best news he’d received since learning that he had his own CCC apartment: she found a city program that would cover nearly the entire cost of new dentures.

“Dana did all the work I didn’t know how to do. The questions she asked me sounded like she knew a lot about what I needed,” Glenn says. “Now that I have dentures again, oh yeah, I feel healthier now. I’m so grateful to her.”

While Housed and Healthy is ostensibly a housing program, it functions as a way to not only expose residents to the many ways to better health, but as a de facto arm of health services that can reach into where their patients live. Gaps in care get caught and filled; residents are supported in better utilizing health care services; and people like Glenn find trustworthy faces to bring health-related concerns.

“Our housing staff want to see our residents healthier; health care providers want to see their patients housed,” Dana says. “It just makes sense.”