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‘Housing is healthcare’: a medical industry partnership aims to assist with housing

In the Christian Services Center conference room on Thursday, April 18, 2024, Executive Director Eric Gray addresses about 50 attendees from the healthcare, homeless services, education, private and local local government sectors
Lillian Hernández Caraballo
Central Florida Public Media
In the Christian Services Center conference room on Thursday, April 18, 2024, Executive Director Eric Gray addresses about 50 attendees from the healthcare, homeless services, education, and local government sectors about housing as a way improve health outcomes.

The Christian Services Center hosted a conference Thursday where homeless services professionals, healthcare workers, and community leaders made plans for shelter and housing ahead of the summer months.

“Housing is healthcare,” said Warren Foster, program manager at Orange Blossom Family Health Center, a medical service center for people without homes.

Proposing a housing-first model, Foster presented a new housing assistance pilot program implemented by the Agency for Healthcare Administration in collaboration with certain healthcare plans and in partnership with Florida Medicaid.

The program will help secure housing for individuals 21 or older who are on Medicaid, have a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness. The overall is to facilitate a path to housing to improve health outcomes, serving up to 4,000 Medicaid recipients a year.

“I don't want people to go off the deep end thinking that Medicaid is going to be able to house somebody because the reality is that the resources are not sufficient to actually permanently supportively house someone. But there are avenues,” Foster said.

Dr. Pia Valvassori, a neurologist who serves as a Christian Services Center Board member, also gave a presentation. Her focus was on minimizing heat-related injuries and deaths this season, as weather experts warn of dangerous record-breaking heat again this summer.

According to Dr. Valvassori, the Christian Services Center saw an unprecedented number of emergency cases last year during the hottest months — burnt feet, dehydration, heat strokes, and seizures. Many lives were lost.

“Deaths due to extreme heat outnumber any other natural disaster. It’s having devastating economic consequences in our nation,” she said.

As warmer weather is expected to intensify into life-threatening heat conditions again, Dr. Valvassori said people who live unsheltered are at a higher risk of heat-related injury or death, especially those who live with disabilities or comorbidities.

“Part of the issue is mortality rates are greatly underreported, many of the deaths associated with extreme heats are as a result of chronic disease, not necessarily extreme heat in and of itself, so our numbers are greatly undercounted,” she said.

Valvassori says this year the organization is making a list of additional safe spaces, like libraries, gyms, and community centers, to help save lives.

There were about 50 attendees, representing the healthcare industry, legal services, faith-based organizations, caseworkers, homeless services, education institutions, such as UCF, harm reductionists, and local government.

Christian Services Center Executive Director Eric Gray wanted to make something clear.

“The major recommendation is this: Homelessness is not a problem for churches and charities to solve any longer. This is an emergency management issue, which means cities and counties. And so the idea that churches and charities are going to fix this at the scope of the refugee crisis that we're experiencing right now is long gone," he said.

Gray said the biggest obstacle right now is lawmakers who are passing legislation based on myths and misconceptions. He compared it to the misinformation and disinformation HIV and AIDS campaigns of the 70s and 80s.

“We have to find ways to engage local municipal governments, local county governments, and frankly, the homeless services system of care hasn't done a good job of explaining all of that,” Gray said. “People who are experiencing homelessness don't have a lobby, right? We're their lobby. We are their voice.”

Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member.

Lillian (Lilly) Hernández Caraballo is a bilingual, multimedia journalist covering housing and homelessness for Central Florida Public Media, as a Report for America corps member.
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