AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a town hall meeting Wednesday, medical professionals from Dell Medical Center and Community Care spoke about what some organizations are doing to provide health care to a rising number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin.
“The numbers are not going in the right direction. Chronic homelessness is on the rise,” said Dr. Tim Mercer, director of the Mobile Medical and Mental Healthcare Team, or M3 team.
“Chronic homelessness – those who have been continuously homeless for at least a year – has risen significantly since 2015,” he continued. “We’re seeing this across the county but specifically in Texas.”
Mercer said they typically categorize people experiencing homelessness as those living in shelters and those who are unsheltered, i.e., living in campsites, parks or tents.
In 2020, for the first time in Austin’s history, the number of people living outside of shelters was greater than those living in shelters, which has grave health consequences, Mercer said.
People experiencing homelessness do worse across the board on a variety of health outcomes, according to research in the presentation. On average, homeless people living outside of shelters will live 20 years less than the general population, according to research.
“So higher rates of functional impairment, mental illness, drug use, higher rates of delayed access to medical care, higher rates of delayed access to prescription medications,” Mercer said.
And in Austin, many of these folks do not get the help they need. Mercer said nearly a quarter of people experiencing homelessness do not get access to health care at all.
One of the organizations in Travis County providing health care to homeless people is Community Care. They go out three days a week to known encampments around Austin as well as areas that have been referred to them by community members.
In the last year, Community Care has treated over 650 people in the area. The top diagnoses they see are drug use disorders, mental health disorders, skin conditions and hypertension.
The Community Care team provides preventive screens, such as STI tests and cancer screenings, and conducts simple procedures to help keep these folks from needing to go to the hospital.
There is also the M3 team, which was funded by a five-year grant from the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA). This program enrolls chronically homeless people who also have a chronic medical condition, severe mental illness and a substance abuse disorder. For this project, they are prioritizing enrolling Black people “because systemic racism is a driver of homelessness across the entire country in every single state,” Mercer said.
“African Americans are more likely to experience homelessness than their white counterparts. In Austin, while eight to 10 percent of the general population is African American, 30 to 40 percent of the homeless population is African American,” he continued.
This program surrounds a patient with specialists needed to address all of their needs. They are also mobile and will meet the patient where they are so they do not have to find a way to a medical center or clinic, something that is considered a barrier to accessing health care.
Of the people enrolled in the program, the team saw that it was effective in reducing some adverse mental health issues and decreasing the number of times the people in the study went to the Emergency Room visits. It also helped patients enroll in health insurance, access housing, and sign up for other crucial assistance programs.
“People experiencing homelessness are medically and socially complex. (They are) highly vulnerable with disproportionately higher morbidity and mortality than the general population,” Mercer said.
“But there are effective care models to address their needs and improve outcomes. It starts with compassion, dignity, and trust and meeting people where they are,” he said.