Achieving better health for the homeless

Walking through the streets of any large city, one sees many homeless people. Nearly two in three have a history of some form of mental illness.

Hospitals have become the place where homeless people with serious mental illness go during a crisis, but hospitals are poorly equipped to meet their needs.

How can society improve the health of homeless people with mental health problems?

Jack’s story:

Jack Rodriguez is a fictional name we have given to a middle-aged man who was recently admitted to an Ontario hospital. His name and some details have been changed to preserve confidentiality. Rodriguez has lived with schizophrenia since he was a teenager. At this stage in his illness he primarily has ‘negative’ symptoms – such as a reduced ability to experience pleasure and other emotions, and a lack of relationships. He also suffers from paranoid delusions, meaning he feels constantly threatened. For many years, he has been homeless. Like many homeless individuals with severe mental illness, he prefers to sleep on a sidewalk rather than in a shelter, where he would have to follow rules and a schedule.

As Rodriguez has become older he has started to develop medical problems, and he currently suffers from an ulcer on his left buttock. This ulcer occasionally becomes infected, requiring treatment with antibiotics, and is unlikely to heal without regular wound care.  Rodriguez has been in hospital for two months. While there, he has not allowed the nurses to change his dressings, and he has also declined to be treated with antipsychotic medications – a class of medications that might reduce his paranoia and help clear his thinking. His doctors feel uncomfortable discharging him as his ulcer is likely to worsen if he continues to sleep on the sidewalk. A psychiatrist who sees him outside the hospital believes that he meets criteria for a treatment order that would allow him to be treated with long acting, anti psychotic medications against his will (he would receive an injection once every few weeks). Rodriguez’s doctors have applied for the treatment order.

Keeping Rodriguez in hospital for months while waiting to see if these medications will work or not seems like a wasteful use of hospital resources, but discharging him back to the street also seems like a bad option. However, the waiting list for supportive housing options is long, and few if any psychiatric institutions would take him as a long-term inpatient.

This is Mr. Rodriguez’s story, but it is a common narrative faced by some of the estimated 10,000 people who are homeless on any given night across Canada, and the hospitals that provide their health care.

Mental health care, homelessness and the health care system

Homeless people are extremely vulnerable to serious physical and mental health problems – their average life span in Canada is 7 to 10 years shorter than the general population. A recent study found that homeless men in Canada have the same chance of living to the age of 75 as the average male in 1921 – before antibiotics were developed.  People who are homeless are at a much higher risk of contracting infections such as tuberculosis and HIV. Homeless people also suffer disproportionately from violent crime – almost half of homeless people in Toronto report being assaulted within the past year. Between a quarter and a third of homeless people have a serious mental illness – schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder. Most homeless people who are mentally ill are not receiving adequate treatment for their illnesses. Homelessness is a daily struggle for the essentials of life – for safe shelter, food and security. This struggle means that many homeless ignore their health care in favor of trying to cope with day-to-day necessities.

When homeless people do come in contact with the health care system, they are often in crisis. Rather than seeing a family doctor in the early stages of illness, they are more likely to show up in an emergency department with more advanced disease. And they have complex needs which go beyond dealing with medical problems. Dr. Jeff Turnbull, the president of the Canadian Medical Association says that “it is very difficult for doctors and the health care system to unravel problems of severe mental illness and addiction.” Turnbull, who has been providing health care to the homeless at shelters in Ottawa for the past two decades, says “I went into the shelters thinking I could give people antibiotics” but quickly realized that “I couldn’t do that until I controlled mental illness and I couldn’t control mental illness until there was a stable living environment.”

Housing and health – new models of care

Supportive housing services for the homeless are provided by many different agencies. In Toronto, these agencies have now coordinated their intake processes, but in other cities the intake process can be very complicated. Waiting lists are long, and people can wait many years for supportive housing. And even after finding a place, homeless people with mental illness are often rejected by landlords or housing agencies for poor behavior, interpersonal difficulties and security concerns.

Dr. Stephen Hwang, a general internist and researcher at the Centre for Research in Inner City Health at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto is conducting a research study in which homeless people are provided with a rent supplement, help finding housing and specialized support services. The At Home Study, as it is known, is based on the premise that “housing is a human right and a fundamental precondition for getting healthy,” says Dr. Hwang. The study is looking at both health outcomes and the costs of providing the rent subsidy. The million dollar question is whether we can save the health care system money by paying for housing.

Dr. Vicky Stergiopoulos, a psychiatrist and researcher at the Centre for Research in Inner City Health notes that “there is no one size fits all approach” when dealing with the complex population of homeless people with serious mental health issues. Stergiopoulos argues that there needs to be a more concerted push to “create a menu of housing options for people to address their various needs and choices” as many people with serious mental illness cannot live independently. Part of the problem may be that insufficient funds are spent on supportive and public housing, not just for those with mental illness, but also for individuals with low incomes. For several years, public housing advocates have been promoting the ‘One Percent Solution’, in which federal and provincial governments would spend one percent of their budgets on housing. These efforts, however, have not gained political traction.

For those with severe mental illness, providing housing and intensive case management might actually save money. This line of argument is supported by work that Dr. Hwang has done previously. For example, a study he conducted found that the health care costs of homeless patients over the course of an acute care admission were $2500 higher than housed patients for similar hospital admissions.  Hwang says that “the promise of the At Home Study is that it may be cost saving by preventing hospitalizations, emergency room visits, arrests and incarcerations”. Even if this turns out not to be true, many would argue that providing mentally ill homeless people with decent housing is simply the right thing to do.

The comments section is closed.

  • Jeremy Petch says:

    Great to hear about the excellent work being carried out through the At Home Study.

    As we look for ways to address homelessness and its enormous impacts on health and the healthcare system, it is also worth acknowledging the very important steps that have been taken by the Ontario government and the Inner City Health Associates in Toronto.

    It has long been understood that the fee for service model of physician funding made providing medical care to the homeless very difficult, since much of the healthcare needed by the homeless is not billable and many do not have health cards. While a number of physicians volunteered their time, it was difficult for anyone to devote enough time to make a significant impact. In response, in 2005 the Ontario government introduced an alternate payment plan to remunerate medical care for this population. Doctors who had previously volunteered their time were able to come together under the Inner City Health Associates and provide more and better coordinated care to Toronto’s chronically homeless. The ICHA now includes 65 physicians with a diversity of specialties and who work in 40 agencies, including shelters, drop-ins, and street outreach teams. The ICHA has become a model of innovation and interdisciplinary care, and has been recognized as a best practice in primary care by the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation.

    Other provinces looking to improve access to care for the homeless should follow Ontario’s lead and consider alternative funding models that allow physicians to devote greater time and resources to this population.

  • Ritika Goel says:

    This is ofcourse an excellent point, Emily. The authors of this article certainly believe that equity and social justice are the reasons above all why the homeless should be provided housing and access to proper food and healthcare (to allow for health). It is sometimes unfortunate that many of us advocating for these measures feel the need to put them in financial terms. The fact is that the projections show they WOULD save money, but ofcourse the primary reason for supporting them is to allow for our fellow Canadians to live in dignity. It’s a sad truth that this alone doesn’t always change policy, and let’s face it, even the economic arguments don’t necessarily do it (or else we’d have a national housing strategy and more).

  • Peter Walker says:

    This is a great story. But the argument about providing specialized services and support for socially disadvantaged persons goes well beyond the homeless. See the excellent article in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande (The Hot Spotters, January 24, 2011). Active programs to identify and treat the neediest patients provides better care and saves money. And it allows them to be more active and to contribute more. We need more of this in Ontario.

  • Emily Holton says:

    I understand that dollars and cents can be very persuasive, no matter where you stand politically. And based on the literature I’ve seen, it seems clear that it does make good economic sense to provide housing and supports to people who are homeless and live with severe mental illness, because it reduces the time they spend in jails or hospitals. However, what if it didn’t? What if it WAS more expensive – does that mean we shouldn’t provide quality housing (+ the supports that some people need in order to sustain housing) as a basic human right? As you’ve beautifully described in this article, decent, stable housing can be the difference between life and death for some of our most vulnerable citizens – I hope that the economic arguments won’t overshadow that fact.

    • Anthony Lucic says:

      I also hope, with Emily, that we can start connecting our economic rationale for better housing and care with our moral, human and environmental perspectives. Surely the benefits of stable housing for the most vulnerable extend to all of us in some way?


Karen Born


Karen is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto and is currently on maternity leave from her role as a researcher/writer with

Irfan Dhalla


Irfan is a Staff Physician in the of Department of Medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital and Vice President, Physician Quality and Director, Care Experience Institute at Unity Health Toronto. Irfan also continues to practice general internal medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital.

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