Hamilton’s Shelter Health Network

According to the report, “On Any Given Night: Measuring Homelessness in Hamilton”, published by the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, the two major contributors to homelessness are the lack of adequate income and the lack of affordable housing. Families or individuals may be homeless or at risk of becoming homeless for a number of reasons, including experiencing abuse or violence, losing a job, having an income too low to stay in suitable housing, experiencing food insecurity, suffering from mental or physical health conditions, experiencing discrimination by landlords, facing challenges with substance use, lack of appropriate support services and excessive housing costs.

Here in Hamilton, a city with one of the highest poverty rates in Ontario, at 1 in 5 people, the homelessness statistics speak for themselves. The SPRC estimates that the number of people accessing emergency shelters has more than doubled since 1995. On any given night, close to 400 men, women and children stay in emergency shelters. The social housing wait list has 4,258 active applications. About 22% of renter households spend more than 50% of their income on shelter, which puts them at serious risk of homelessness.

It is now commonly accepted that housing and health issues are directly related. Evidence shows that people who are homeless experience poorer health and shorter lives. Foot, skin and dental problems are common among the homeless population. Rates of chronic health conditions, such as cardiovascular and chronic respiratory problems are much higher than the general population. In a 2004 study on Health and Homelessness, over 1/3 of participants reported not having enough energy to get through the day, and eating only one meal a day. This is not surprising given that Hamilton’s food banks record an average of 15,000 visits per month. 27% of participants reported not having an Ontario Health Card. Finally, 24% reported a diagnosis of mental illness.

Yet, despite this important health discrepancies, those living with homelessness often do not get adequate health care, due to the complexity of their health care needs and the lack of provision accessible health care services. This can be because of lack of coordination and continuity of health care services across sectors, such as acute care to community settings and lack of integration across health and social services.

And this is where the Shelter Health Network comes in. Hamilton’s Shelter Health Network aims to provide comprehensive care in the community that is accessible, integrated and multi-disciplinary. It offers continuity, quality and satisfaction to both clients and providers and focuses on health, promotion, independence and choice. Established in 2005, the Shelter Health Network is a collaboration of health care professionals and social services organizations working to provide services to those with unstable housing and complex health problems.

To give us a better idea of this innovative organization, we talked to Dr. Lori Regenstreif, Medical Director of the Shelter Health Network.

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