BP, M.D. – Health consequences of homelessness in RI

by Julia Harvey

While many Rhode Islanders complain about the biting temperatures this season, with lows consistently below freezing, the winter can be a particularly dangerous time for those living outdoors. Vital statistics for the homeless are not officially recorded by the government, but it is estimated that hundreds of homeless die every year in the United States due to freezing temperatures. Though hypothermia is a primary concern, the cold can also exacerbate existing health conditions from which many of the homeless already suffer, such as hepatitis or tuberculosis. According to a recent count taken in December, over 150 homeless people in Rhode Island are living outdoors.

Homelessness in Rhode Island is a growing problem, to which the state’s public officials have offered mixed responses. The nation’s first ever Homeless Bill of Rights was passed in Rhode Island last June. The document explicitly defines the homeless’ rights to equal treatment by governmental agencies, to emergency medical care, to freedom from discrimination by current or potential employers, to vote, to privacy, and to inhabit public spaces.  While many advocates for the homeless in the state hail this piece of legislation as an important step forward for homeless rights, other government actions have not been met with the same approval.

In October 2012, Gov. Lincoln Chafee made the decision to leave the state’s largest men’s homeless shelter in Harrington Hall in Cranston, a facility that failed to pass inspection last year and is far smaller than the proposed alternative, the Gloria McDonald Building. While some improvements to Harrington Hall have been made, the state remains short of the more than 400 beds needed to accommodate the homeless this winter. The government has supported the right of the homeless to live on the streets, but has been less enthusiastic in its efforts to get them off the streets.

The health implications for outdoor living can be disastrous and lead not only to poorer health outcomes but also to higher health care utilization. A study conducted by a Toronto hospital estimated that an insured homeless individual in the United States has an average annual cost of $1,436 for emergency room visits alone per year compared to $175 for their non-homeless counterparts.

On Jan. 24, homeless advocates held a memorial service for those Rhode Island homeless that passed away in 2012. Thirty-two people were honored. Rhode Island’s homeless and homeless advocates continue to wait on Chafee and Rhode Island legislators to make the changes necessary to help the homeless off the streets and into adequate shelters.


photo by Jef Nickerson: http://www.flickr.com/photos/woneffe/2115402279/in/photostream/