The Wicked Problem of Homelessness and Healthcare

Problem Advocate Jenn Lopez, MCRP, Director of Homeless Initiatives, Office of the Gov. Hickenlooper, speaks about homelessness in healthcare as a wicked problem at the June 20 Big Reveal Event at Ellie Caulkins Opera House. (Jacqueline Endsley Photography)

What is the Problem?

Currently, the health of homeless populations is poorly managed. Without safe, reliable shelter, homeless populations are unable to engage and acquire appropriate care from the healthcare system without incurring unnecessary burdens. On any given night, an estimated 500,000 Americans experience homelessness, which ultimately translates to large costs for the medical system. Solving this problem will relieve huge financial burdens on the system, while also addressing the health care needs of an underserved population.

How does it affect society?

Homelessness is found in every major city in the US. The makeup of today's homeless population has shifted due to the rising cost of housing leading to a higher percentage of the homeless population consisting of entire families. Homeless individuals and families often cannot afford the medications and treatments that they require. This means that emergency departments are frequently their only point of entry into the current healthcare system, which puts a strain on resources. One survey found that emergency departments in almost every state were overcrowded, in large part due to the homeless population. The study found that less than 1% of Americans use the emergency room for routine care, but that a little more than one third of the newly homeless population routinely used the emergency room.

Why is it a wicked problem?

Homelessness, housing and health is a multifaceted and difficult problem to solve. This population is unique as they are at greater risk of falling through the cracks in our current system due to limited access to medical care as well as not being able to afford follow-up care, medications or a proper diet. These problems are compounded by the fact that the population is aging. As of the early 1990s, the adult homeless population aged 50 and over was 11%. This increased to 37% by 2003 and today homeless people age 50 and over makeup half of the homeless population.

Our current healthcare system is largely financially based, which inherently limits access to those who cannot pay, unless it is an emergency. Unfortunately, once it is an emergency, it is often too late and more expensive.

Let's keep the conversation going!

Homelessness is prevalent in our society and the underserved of our nation need better healthcare. The homeless population is aging and getting sicker. Our current financially based system limits their access and continuity of care. This is not only a humanitarian concern, but also a financial one as the bulk of their care is being done in emergency departments. Share your thoughts, ideas and articles with #101010homelessness #101010health

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