Despite all the advantages we have in Canada, homelessness is a reality for far too many citizens — and besides being a serious social problem, it's one that affects our healthcare system as well.
Although the Canadian government, through several initiatives, is trying to provide dedicated housing solutions, another program that has come out of the medical world will greatly help the homeless population's chances for success.
Dr. Stephen Hwang, a physician and researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital, has been doing research on the homeless since the mid-1990s, marrying years of interest in the well-being of people who suffer from mental illness with the impact that stable housing can have on their health. And now his work has been rewarded with an appointment as the hospital’s first endowed Chair in Homelessness, Housing and Health.
Thanks in large part to Dr. Hwang's work, the Centre for Research on Inner City Health (CRICH), St. Michael's research facility which focuses on the health consequences of social inequality, has concluded that there is a very strong bond between homelessness and the mortality rate.
“Our research program will address three major themes: improving health care for homeless and vulnerably housed people who have long-term conditions such as diabetes, chronic pain, and mental illness; addressing unmet health needs among people who are homeless, thereby reducing avoidable emergency department visits and hospitalizations; and understanding how to end homelessness through innovative housing and support programs,” Dr. Hwang said in the hospital's press release.
One doesn't need to be living on the streets to be labelled "homeless" — even if there's a roof over your head, the shelter you're in might not be safe, or you may not have rights to stay where you are.
In September of 2012, Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network, compiled relevant information from research done across Canada and the United States, and concluded that governments are spending approximately $4.5 billion a year on sustaining the homeless. The research found far too much emphasis put on emergency services, rather than mental health programs and food banks, which could positively impact quality of life. The full report looks at the way North America is addressing care for real cost of homelessness, as well as the full impact on the economy.
Until an actual long-term plan is put in place, the vicious cycle continues. The homeless, by virtue of their living conditions, are stressed, a burden on the health system and more prone to run-ins with the law.
There are even instances where the homeless are encouraged to get off the streets, and must pay fines against their situations.
"A homeless person in Vancouver already gets a minimum $1,000 fine for erecting a tent in public," claims a Mainlander post. "But the new revisions propose extending that punitive logic to all aspects of daily life."
It is for this reason that St. Michael's is to be commended for its bold move — not only drawing connections between homelessness and mortality — but putting a plan in action.
As endowed Chair — a five-year term that started on January 1 — Dr. Hwang will be able to use the sizable donation to make positive inroads into the issue, and hopefully inspire other major institutions to follow this path.