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ER Use Goes Down As Hospital Program Pays Homeless People's Rent

Jan 30, 2018
Originally published on January 30, 2018 7:38 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Take a number. That's the name of our occasional exploration of the world done by picking one revealing number. And here's a number for today, 70. The medical costs for homeless patients at a Chicago hospital can be 70 times higher than for other patients. Not 17. Seventy times higher. Many people have chronic medical problems, but homeless patients often end up in the emergency room simply because they want to get off the street. So one hospital is trying to treat those patients not with medicine, but by paying their rent. WBEZ's Miles Bryan reports.

MILES BRYAN, BYLINE: Glenn Baker takes a lot of pride in his one-bedroom apartment on Chicago's South Side.

GLENN BAKER: This is my living room, which is the most biggest part of the apartment. Over here to my right...

BRYAN: Baker has pictures of his favorite superheroes hanging on the walls, and a note above the sink reminding visitors to do their dishes. He also has a scrappy yellow kitten named Simba.

BAKER: It's gotten to when I come home, he lets me know when he's home. He runs and he sits at the front door, and...

BRYAN: Can't have a cat in the emergency room, can you?

BAKER: (Laughter) No. No, actually, I can't.

BRYAN: Baker's housing has been paid for by the University of Illinois Hospital and a federal housing grant since May of 2016. He was one of 26 homeless patients often called ER super users the hospital placed in the housing. Baker, who suffers from asthma and high blood pressure among other things, says his health has gotten much better since he got a place to live.

BAKER: My health maybe have improved a whole 90, 95 more percent because I don't have to worry about when it's cold outside.

STEPHEN BROWN: Housing is health, right? That's kind of what we say around here now.

BRYAN: Stephen Brown runs the housing project at the hospital. He says fully half of the hospital's ER super users are homeless. Just one night in the hospital can run three grand. Now the hospital pays a thousand bucks a month to house them. Brown says those in the hospital's pilot housing project have seen their health improve. And after crunching the numbers, monthly medical costs for their care are down significantly.

BROWN: If we went to every hospital and said we want you to pay for the housing for 10 chronically homeless individuals, that would cost them about $120,000 a year. In doing so we would reduce the number of chronically homeless here by a third. That's major impact.

BRYAN: And that's what's starting to happen. A number of other hospitals here are launching similar programs to house homeless patients. Even the city is putting money towards the idea. And Chicago isn't alone. Robert Friant is with the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a national nonprofit organization that advises hospitals on how to set up this kind of housing program.

ROBERT FRIANT: Almost all of the states where we're active, and we're active in 48 states, health systems are now investing in some way so that they can help people who need rental assistance.

BRYAN: Friant points to big investments by hospitals in Portland, Ore., and Orlando. His group estimates that nationwide hospitals have already invested about a hundred-million dollars in housing. Friant says for hospitals it's a win-win benefiting both patient health and saving money.

FRIANT: When you look at the studies across the board, you're looking at about a 50 percent drop in emergency room use. That's not a minor savings. That's a huge savings for these hospital systems.

BRYAN: Glenn Baker says even though he feels happier and healthier being out of the ER and in his own apartment, he does miss his nurse friends. He says he's taken the 45-minute bus ride to visit the emergency room a few times just to say hi. Still, Baker says his favorite part about visiting the ER now is going home. For NPR News, I'm Miles Bryan in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.