Homelessness and Health: AHCJ Summit

Homelessness and Health: AHCJ Summit

The importance of elevating the voices of people with lived experience of homelessness and housing as a social determinant of health emerged as themes at AHCJs Fall Summit November 2-3 in Oakland, California.

Nearly 100 clinicians, service providers, researchers, journalists and activists attended Homelessness and Health Care, a 1.5-day event designed to help journalists tell stories about homelessness more effectively and responsibly.

More than half of people surveyed in a survey earlier this year said they thought homelessness was a serious problem in their local community; four in five said making sure everyone has a safe place to live should be a priority for the federal government.

During a discussion about the importance of stigma and language when reporting on homelessness, Dez Martinez, executive director of We Are Not Invisible, who has experienced homelessness himself, said negative perceptions of homelessness can cause mental illness. They were all seen as criminals, drug addicts, alcoholics or people who just wanted to live a free life, she said, adding that many people who saw her on the street thought she wanted to be homeless.

Dez Martinez and Liz Fry
Dez Martinez, executive director of We Are Not Invisible (left) and Liz Frie, MD, MPH, vice president of the Street Medicine Institute (right), during the panel “What the Streets Are Saying: Lessons from Street Medicine.” Photo by Erica Tricarico

In fact, I was running away from domestic violence, and there was no shelter, she said. Running away from domestic violence, you are very timid and do not want to talk to people.

Martinez prefers the term street family because she said homeless people carry such a negative connotation.

The best way to reduce stigma is through education and telling first-person stories that the homeless voice is vital to changing the way the public thinks about homelessness and homelessness, said Mark Horvath, founder and CEO of Invisible People, a nonprofit that gives face to the homeless through video storytelling and journalism.

In a session with Voice of San Diego senior investigative reporter Lisa Halverstadt, Horvath rejected the use of the verb experience to describe people who are homeless. Disneyland is an experience, he said, but homelessness is hell.

More highlights

The summit’s keynote speaker, Margot Kushel, MD, who led a landmark statewide study of people experiencing homelessness in California, the largest representative study of homelessness in decades, shared key findings from the study and asked journalists who write about her research to be sure to emphasize that people who live in homeless shelters are homeless. Some politicians get this wrong, she said. We have to provide housing for everyone. Shelter does not solve homelessness. It may be necessary, but it doesn’t solve homelessness, Kuchel explained.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, another featured speaker, talked about the Mental Health Services Act, which he co-authored nearly 20 years ago to create funding for mental health services in the state. He also explained why the billions raised by that measure and other policy changes have not solved the problem of too many people with mental illnesses living on the streets.

I think this growth in homelessness is largely a result of systemic poverty, Steinberg said.

We’ve always had people living with serious health conditions, mental health conditions, substance abuse conditions, but we’ve had beds, [and] we had one room hotels, he said. We had more affordable housing options for people.

Session summaries

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Image Source : healthjournalism.org

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