By Zhihong Li
Homelessness is a bigger challenge for Massachusetts than ever, as the homeless population has increased faster here than anywhere else in the United States since 2007. While the government, community organizations, civic groups and churches have increased their aid in housing, food, health care, employment and education, the homeless still face risks and have difficulty in meeting basic needs.
One out of nine people living in eastern Massachusetts does not know where his or her next meal will come from. The Greater Boston Food Bank reported that the number of requests for food assistance has been increased by 21 percent since 2008. The 2013 Status Report on Hunger in Massachusetts pointed out that in 2012, 700,000 adults and children in Massachusetts, which equals to 11.4 percent of Massachusetts households, were found to be food insecure. Though there is not a specific figure showing how many homeless people are going hungry, it is inevitable that housing instability and high unemployment make the homeless at greater risk of hunger.
Qualified low-income individuals can get food stamp benefits for food. Massachusetts food programs provide low-income families and homeless people with free food, low-cost food and nutritional information. The programs include food pantries, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program that offer free healthy food to women, infants and children who experience nutrition issues.
Many homeless people go to food pantries for help. The Greater Boston Food Bank purchases food from Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program and distributes the free food to agencies such as various food pantries and then to the people in need.
Community organizations and churches also provide free food to homeless people at specific times. The food and drinks are mainly bread, cakes, soup and coffee, etc. For example, homeless people can get free food and drinks in the warm center of The First Church in Cambridge, and most of the food is donated by the community. Some volunteer and student organizations also use food vans to distribute food to the homeless on the streets.
When it comes to homelessness, health care might not be the first thing that people think about, but it is closely related with unstable housing and hunger. A study from Philadelphia found that the mortality rate of homeless adults was 3.5 times higher than others. The suicide rate of homeless people is nine times higher than the general population.
Substance abuse and mental health issues are significantly relevant to homelessness. A report found that 30 percent of homeless people have mental illnesses and 50 percent homeless people have co-occurring substance abuse problems. Many patients coming to Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program have different levels of mental health issues including depression, paranoia, bipolar, said Pooja Bhalla, a nurse and the operation officer of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.
Physicians and nurses of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program visit 70 shelters in the Greater Boston Area and provide physical exams, medication prescriptions and mental health treatment. Lots of small nonprofit organizations also set up their health care departments and kinds of programs to help people heal themselves from sufferings.