Homelessness is a significant issue in our community, with serious personal health consequences.

The poor physical conditions endured when one is homeless, including exposure to the elements while sleeping on the ground or under bridges, are responsible for a large range of problems. With limited access to bathrooms and showers, personal hygiene and dental care are both severely impacted. Serious skin diseases and foot problems often arise from this lack of ability to maintain healthy hygiene. If one lives in a shelter, conditions are crowded and disease(s) can spread easily.

All of these issues contribute to the stress present in people experiencing homelessness. Sleep is often poor for people experiencing homelessness as a result of heightened levels of stress and anxiety and lack of a fixed, regular place to sleep. People experiencing homelessness don’t have a home to store their belongings, so they are susceptible to theft of their property. This can often lead to warm clothing, electronics or medications being stolen. When medications are stolen, they cannot be replaced right away; thus, many homeless people are not compliant with their medications.

People experiencing homelessness are often dehumanized because of their housing status and are victims of hate crimes. Accessing healthy food is also a challenge and is limited by the lack of a place to cook and the distance to the grocery store, so many homeless people eat highly processed foods. There are several soup kitchens, but the offerings often are not in line with the nutritional needs of people experiencing homelessness, who can suffer from food allergies or diabetes, or need low-salt or low-fat diets.

Many people experiencing homelessness come from a background of generational poverty. Alcoholism in the family and absent parenting are common. Their childhoods may have been marked by chaos or may have resulted in foster care placement. They may not have not learned the coping mechanisms that help when facing stress or anger. The National Coalition for the Homeless states that between 20% to 25% of homeless people have severe mental illness, compared to 6% of the general population. Without access to care and healthy avenues to release and cope with their stressful situations, they may be drawn to drugs and alcohol. Others chose to abuse drugs before they became homeless.

Looking at stress, sleep, exposure to the elements, access to healthy food, and mental and physical health care, it becomes increasingly clear how the lack of a safe and stable home has significant and far-reaching effects on one’s health. Dr. David Maness and Dr. Muneeza Kahn state in their overview of homelessness and health care that the average life span of a homeless person is between 42 to 52 years. Limited education, lack of trust and familiarity with health systems, and substance abuse all play a part in how well a person can respond to his or her health needs. Many homeless people do not get health care until they cannot ignore the symptoms and go to the emergency department at local hospitals. Maness and Kahn further state homeless people are three to six times more likely to get sick, are hospitalized four times more, and are three to four times more likely to die than the average person in the United States.

While the effects of homelessness on health are severe, there is an incredibly effective solution to being homeless — a safe and stable home. Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless (TJACH) coordinates local programs that help people experiencing homelessness in Charlottesville and the surrounding counties.

Right now, there are about 165 people experiencing homelessness in Charlottesville. With the support of the whole community, TJACH aims to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring.

Want to know more? Contact Anthony Haro, executive director of TJACH, at anthony@TJACH.org.

Tina Stephens is SOAR benefits specialist for the Thomas Jefferson Health District.

VITAL SIGNS This column, which promotes community health, is sponsored by Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, Region Ten Community Services Board, Thomas Jefferson Health District and the University of Virginia Heath System.

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VITAL SIGNS This column, which promotes community health, is sponsored by Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, Region Ten Community Services Board, Thomas Jefferson Health District and the University of Virginia Heath System.

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