Column: Stable housing benefits health

Kate Birnbryer-White

As unemployment rates fall, overlooked are the thousands of families who are homeless or evicted every day, sending many into a downward spiral that leaves them sick, unemployed, depressed and even dead.

Providing safe, affordable housing can improve physical and mental health — at less cost. Research shows that housing programs that target the chronically homeless, mentally ill and those with chronic health problems can significantly reduce the cost of public medical care.

Chronic homelessness often has roots in poor health. Another less-publicized malady — eviction — can send families into a world of financial crisis and stress from which they may not recover.

“Eviction is not just a condition of poverty, it’s a cause of it,” said sociologist Matthew Desmond, in a published interview. Desmond spent more than a year living in Milwaukee’s poor neighborhoods to chronicle the hardships of families coping with the stress of evictions in his book, “Evicted.” Desmond writes that eviction often pushes families into worse housing in worse neighborhoods, yet they pay the same rent if not higher. Children miss school, which leads to dropping out. Depression and even suicides have been attributed to evictions and home foreclosures.

A recent Detroit News investigation found that 1 out of 5 renters in Detroit face eviction each year — 285,000 eviction cases since 2009. In 2015, most landlords who went to court to evict renters were operating illegally. Widespread evictions destabilize neighborhoods and threaten the health and safety of residents, according to the report.

The upshot is this: Federal and state governments ought to consider linking medical insurance with providing safe and affordable housing because the housing costs can be recouped from spending less on medical care. Healthy citizens are more productive, and it’s clear that unstable housing can be a health hazard for those who want nothing more than to provide for themselves and their families.

One New York study of people who were struggling with mental illness and homelessness determined 90 percent of the cost of providing them with subsidized housing was offset by less use of public hospitals and psychiatric units, as well as fewer incarcerations. Similar studies in Los Angeles and Seattle found significant net savings to taxpayers by providing public housing to homeless individuals. In Texas, UnitedHealthcare helps its Medicaid health plan members in need to find subsidized housing and coordinate their health care. In some cases the insurance company will help them buy such essentials as furniture. The goal is to reduce the cost of medical services by reducing the number of expensive ER trips.

Community Action Agencies are on the forefront of working to create affordable housing, housing veterans and families facing homelessness and eviction. As the debate over health care in the U.S. continues, it’s past time to start thinking holistically about how housing and other basic needs affect the cost of becoming ill.

Kate Birnbryer-White is executive director of Michigan Community Action.