Fredrickson: Homeless population deserves healthcare

Michelle Fredrickson

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.  

Homelessness is growing in Fort Collins, with more than 350 people being homeless at the end of last year. A recent report from The Collegian indicated that healthcare was among many dire needs not met for the rising homeless population.

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Stephen Wildgen, also known as ‘The Colonel,’ is a cook at the Fort Collins Rescue Mission. He went to CSU, then to med school, then was in the military for 32 years, earning the title of Colonel. He is working on a book on homelessness titles ‘Signs of our Times’ with CSU Professor Francisco Rael. (Julia Trowbridge | Collegian)

People experiencing homelessness are among the least able to access care, and the most likely to contract disease. The US healthcare system prices out the impoverished, and ends up closing off to the population that needs it the most.

Disease outbreaks are common in homeless populations, as are serious mental health conditions, and the people experiencing them are unable to access the care they need. The American Public Health Association refers to homelessness as a “recalcitrant public health problem” in the United States.

In Fort Collins, organizations like the Mennonite Fellowship and Homeward 2020 are working to provide needed services for the community, alongside Catholic Charities and the Fort Collins Rescue Mission. But more needs to be done to address the health needs of the homeless population. These unmet needs result in outbreaks of completely preventable conditions, as well as increased use of emergency departments and hospitalizations – which would then result in the person being slapped with a bill they could never hope to afford.

In San Diego last year, there was a persistent outbreak of hepatitis A in the homeless population, claiming 15 lives. It likely happened because the homeless population was forced to relocate into smaller, denser camps for the All Star baseball game.

“I’m not so much surprised it occurred, but surprised it didn’t occur earlier,” said Dr. Robert Schooley, chair of the division of infectious diseases at the University of California, San Diego, in an interview with PBS.

Unsanitary conditions spread diseases like hepatitis A very quickly and make it hard to recover from. But it’s not just infectious disease outbreaks that disproportionately affect the homeless population. Mental health issues co-occur with homelessness in people about half the time, and people lack the resources to get services.

In Fort Collins, a man experiencing homelessness, 49-year-old Kurt Schroeder, struggles with anxiety attacks and no longer is able to see a doctor about them. He said when he gets seriously sick, he goes to the emergency room.

This is an unfair system. Something about this needs to change.

It is critical that the population at risk have a seat at the table and have power to make changes to the system.

In order to correct the problem entirely, the whole system of homelessness would have to be addressed, which would mean providing accessible housing to everyone and accessible healthcare to everyone. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Yes, we need job programs. Yes, we need affordable housing. But in a much more immediate sense, we need to combat the inequity making people completely unable to access care.

Until these systematic societal changes can be made, organizations and non-profits need to step up.

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There are a lot of great organizations in Fort Collins dedicated to helping the homeless population, but I only found one organization offering free care in Fort Collins – Christ Clinic, a 501c3 with two locations in Fort Collins – and they do not accept walk-ins, nor are they specially designed to deal with the health struggles brought on by homelessness.

As it is, Christ Clinic is doing really good, important work. But with a growing homeless population, one clinic with two locations cannot match the need for the whole community of people experiencing homelessness as well as other low-income, uninsured people.

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless offers a clinic specifically designed for the homeless population in Denver, where people using their services can access free healthcare. Efforts should be made my some of the many wonderful organizations working to end homelessness in Fort Collins to bring this organization, or something like it, to Fort Collins.

Additionally, Homeward 2020 is on the right path with gathering more data about homelessness in Fort Collins. It is critical that the population at risk have a seat at the table and have power to make changes to the system, and by working on information-gathering, Homeward 2020 can empower the population to work toward the change they want to see.

Organizations in Fort Collins already do a great job of working with the homeless population, instead of just projecting onto them. They need to take that skill and apply it to more readily-available access to healthcare.

Every human being has a right to access the treatment and care that they need, just like every human being deserves to have a roof over their head and to know where their next meal is coming from. None of these things are a reality for those experiencing homelessness, and it is costing people their lives.

Michelle Fredrickson can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online at @mfredrickson42