She was homeless and facing serious mental health issues, substance abuse, and domestic violence. And then came COVID-19.
Three months later, the transgender Sacramento woman is “ecstatic” to have a permanent home and for completing a substance abuse program thanks to a newly implemented Kaiser Permanente Northern California COVID-19 strategy that helps protect vulnerable communities.
The Kaiser Permanente member, who asked not to be named, is among thousands of Northern Californians experiencing homelessness, a population twice as likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19, up to 4 times as likely to require critical care, and 2 to 3 times more likely than a stably housed person to die from the virus, according to a recent study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“Data demonstrates that unhoused people are disproportionally affected by negative health outcomes,” said Angela Jenkins, director of Strategic Initiatives for Kaiser Permanente Northern California. “The Kaiser Permanente perspective is that housing is a health issue, and we are here to ensure people get shelter, long-term housing, and the supportive services they need.”
Hundreds of unsheltered people have been placed in temporary or permanent housing and linked to vital resources after visiting a Kaiser Permanente facility since the pandemic hit in March.
As part of Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s pandemic response, an extensive network of COVID-19-specific resources was developed at each of Kaiser Permanente’s 15 service areas from Fresno to Santa Rosa to help connect homeless individuals and families to housing, food, transportation, and financial services along with mental health support.
Patients who come into a facility are screened for social needs through the electronic medical record, KP HealthConnect. If identified as homeless, individuals are connected to public or community-based resources that can meet their specific situation.
“The Kaiser Permanente perspective is that housing is a health issue, and we are here to ensure people get shelter, long-term housing, and the supportive services they need.”
“Protocols instituted in the Emergency Department and hospitals to screen unsheltered patients and address their unique needs are critical in our efforts to address the public health emergency,” said Vidya Iyengar, executive director for Kaiser Permanente Northern California Medi-Cal Strategy and Operations. “For many vulnerable individuals who need additional support, we have ensured a warm handoff to a case manager or community and county program.”
All homeless patients are also tested for COVID-19. Those who test positive or who have been exposed to an infected person are placed in housing where isolation is possible. A portion of this work has been in collaboration with the state as part of Project Roomkey, which has secured hotel rooms for over 15,000 homeless individuals throughout California since the pandemic began.
After the patient is discharged from Kaiser Permanente, a clinical care professional conducts a follow-up to determine additional needs and if previously offered resources were used or helpful.
Can’t Do It Alone
Kaiser Permanente partners with many community nonprofits and city and county agencies to build a stronger and more coordinated homeless response system to improve the health of our communities.
“Our work would not be possible without partnerships like Kaiser Permanente’s that link us to resources, funding, and clinical expertise,” said Kelly Bennett, CEO of Sacramento Covered, a nonprofit that coordinates services for vulnerable families and individuals.
Bennett said Kaiser Permanente helped fund an initiative that delivered over 20,000 hot meals to the nonprofit’s unhoused clients and supplied personal protective equipment to its community health workers in the field.
Looking ahead, Iyengar explained that Kaiser Permanente Northern California is focused on renewed efforts to address the lack of housing resources, which have been exasperated by the pandemic.
“There are existing and new emerging housing needs, which we know with COVID-19 and the economic downturn are only going to increase,” she said. “Homelessness is not a new problem, and it’s one the organization is always trying to solve.”