At first glance, it’s surprising that people surveyed by Bon Secours St. Francis Health System (BSSF) about the Greenville community’s health would choose housing as their chief health and quality of life issue. After all, most people probably think of health and housing as being unrelated. But the truth as Deb Long, BSSF director of health community initiatives, sees it is that people who have unstable housing cannot maintain good health.
To illustrate why, Long offered this anecdote of a diabetic man living in the urban outdoors: He has insulin, but there’s no refrigeration for his life-saving medication, so he stores it wherever he can. If the weather is freezing, he places it in ice or snow. When it’s hot, he tucks the insulin vials in a bush.
“If you don’t have affordable housing, you can’t store your medications and have a routine for taking medicine,” Long said. “Folks who are homeless are more likely to land in the emergency room than others.”
So Bon Secours St. Francis has made it part of the health system’s mission to help low-income people in Greenville find affordable housing. A long-standing partnership with Habitat for Humanity is one way the health system and its employees help. This fall, they’re building a house in the Sterling Community, near St. Francis’ main campus downtown.
The health system is thinking even bigger for the long term. For instance, BSSF is working to find new partners who can help Greenville with housing issues, said Alex Garvey, senior vice president of mission at BSSF.
“Sometimes we can reach out from the hospital system to invite different agencies to come into our community,” he said. “We’ve had some discussions with nationally recognized programs about affordable housing, including rental, transitional and permanent housing.”
BSSF has another initiative to focus on housing for veterans, Long said. “Then, we’re looking at an affordable housing strategy in Greenville County and looking at housing inequity.”
Better housing is the No. 1 concern, but not the only quality of life issue people noted in the Bon Secours St. Francis Community Health Needs Assessment.
BSSF spent a year surveying Greenvillians of all ages, economic groups and races/ethnicities to learn which health and other problems most impacted and concerned them. The 11-page survey had a page where survey takers could choose the top five priorities they felt should be addressed in the community. There were 34 priorities listed, including 20 that were directly related to physical or mental health, and there was one blank spot for people to write in something that wasn’t listed.
The Top 5 issues people said they find most important were not directly related to health care: homelessness, education, crime, transportation and fair wages.
“This is the community telling us what they feel their biggest health needs are,” Garvey said. “People are becoming more conscious of the lack of affordable housing.”
The key for Bon Secours is to work with other community organizations that are addressing those social issues and to find new partners when necessary, Garvey said.
Surveying Greenville residents about their health care concerns and issues has been something Bon Secours has done every few years for more than four decades. In more recent years, the health questions were expanded to include questions about quality of life issues, such as housing, transportation, education and jobs.
“I think there is more and more recognition that these are social issues that impact health,” Long explained.
Health systems across the country are starting to pay attention to the nonmedical problems of their patients. They also are paying closer attention to medical patients’ behavioral health, mental health and drug or alcohol abuse issues. All of these factors are what they call the “social determinants of health.”
While hospitals have no surgeries, medications or therapies to treat people for their lack of a home, car or job, they now recognize that if those social issues are a problem, then fixing a person’s medical concerns is next to impossible.
Because of its Catholic mission, BSSF has long worked to improve the lives of the people the hospital treats, as well as to help the health system’s neighboring and historically poor communities. The survey helps them accomplish that.
“Our ministry should be a reflection of the healing ministry of Jesus Christ in the community,” he said. “So we need to know what the community said are its needs.”