Harris Health earns award providing healthcare to the homeless
Harris Health Mobile Unit

Harris Health System recently received a silver badge award for Health Center Quality Leader from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), a division of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, for the system’s Healthcare for the Homeless Program. The award marks the program’s fourth national recognition in 2022 from the agency: Advancing Health Information Technology for Quality; COVID-19 Public Health Champion; and Patient-Centered Medical Home.

“The great care we provide our homeless patients from primary to specialty care is remarkable,” says Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO, Harris Health. “These awards and recognitions are the result of the dedicated staff who work in mobile units and through our homeless shelter partners to ensure all patients receive the best primary care and essential well-being checks that keep them healthy members in our community.”

Tracey Burdine

Tracey Burdine, director, Healthcare for the Homeless Program, Harris Health, credits her team of providers, nurses and support staff for the achievements.

“Regardless of where a homeless individual may enter into our ‘circle of care,’ he or she will be able to connect to all the services that we provide within the homeless program and also within Harris Health,” she says. “You can enter the circle through a dental visit where a staff member can find out that a patient is not receiving entitled Social Security benefits. Staff can then say, ‘Let me connect you to one of our social workers.’ While the social worker visits with the patient, she may find out that the patient hasn’t had a physical in a while, so then the social worker makes a doctor’s appointment with the medical provider.”

Though the number of Houston’s homeless has decreased dramatically since 2011, there are still thousands daily that experience homelessness.

According to the 2022 Homeless Count & Survey, we can expect to see 3,223 people experiencing homelessness at any given moment in the Houston region (source: HomelessHouston.org… Coalition for the Homeless; as of Jan 24, 2022).

In 2021, more than 21,000 people in Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery counties accessed some type of homeless service, and when you include prevention and other services (like clothing or food assistance), the number jumps to more than 52,000 people.

According to HomelessHouston.org, though the Greater Houston area have seen overall homelessness decrease by 64% since 2011, this complex social issue still poses a significant problem in our tri-county area (Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties). In addition to the impact people and families feel when they are without a safe place to live, homelessness comes with an enormous cost for our community as well. Emergency shelters are critical for those experiencing a housing crisis but are an incredibly high-cost intervention. When people experience unsheltered homelessness, large sums of taxpayer dollars are spent on ambulance and fire response to emergencies, police intervention, emergency room visits, incarceration, street cleaning, and more.

Approximately two of five unsheltered persons had been homeless for three years or longer while one of seven had only been homeless for three months or fewer. Also, approximately two out of five unsheltered persons, their current homeless situation is their first time experiencing homelessness, similar to what was found in 2020.

One out of eight (13%) unsheltered persons were homeless due to a natural disaster with nine of 10 citing Hurricane Harvey or another hurricane as the reason.

And here are some more numbers on Houston’s homelessness reality:

  • 38% of Houston’s homeless have been so for 3 years or more
  • 12%, 2-3 years     
  • 18%, 1-2 years
  • 9%, 7-11 months
  • 9%, 4-6 months
  • 13%, 0-3 months
  • 1%, unknown

Houston-area homelessness by age breaks down like this:

  • 84%, 24 and older
  • 5%, 18-24 years
  • 11% 18 years and younger

According to UnderstandingHouston.org, Houston area homelessness by race is an overwhelmingly Black issue.

  • 55% Black
  • 41% white (including non-Hispanic whites and whites with Hispanic ethnicity)

“The Healthcare for the Homeless Program is critical to the well-being of our community. The services provided to the homeless population enables individuals to gain access to high-quality healthcare in settings close to them. Additionally, Harris Health System wants to address a person’s social determinants of health—those factors of housing, food insecurity, transportation and literacy—that contribute to a person’s health and well-being. We not only provide them healthcare, we also try to connect them to community partners that can help with housing, substance use issues or job training to break the cycle of homelessness. The recognition by HRSA means our program is making measurable strides among the most vulnerable people in our community,” said Burdine.

Burdine says the homeless program offers robust services in medicine, dental, mental health, substance use disorder and vision. Staff is committed to easily connect patients to “multiple services where we’re able to address both their healthcare and social needs. That’s our mission, and I guess that’s why we’re special,” she adds.

In 2021, Harris Health’s homeless program provided care to about 5,000 unique patients:

  • 87% Adults (18-64)

  • 74% Racial/ethnic minority

  • 15% Hispanic/Latino

  • 26% White

  • 59% Black/African American

Harris Health’s program is also helping patients manage their chronic diseases of hypertension, cardiovascular and diabetes. Additionally, the program offers preventive health screenings for cervical, breast and colorectal cancers, as well as, depression, HIV and obesity, and ways to quit smoking.

“To serve the homeless community and work in this department is a wonderful experience. It’s not just a job, it has to be your mission,” Burdine says. “That said, my goal in life is to actually work myself out of a job. I likely won’t see it in my lifetime, but I hope homelessness is eliminated forever.”

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) awards are part of the agency’s Community Health Quality Recognition program to highlight notable quality improvements in areas of access, quality, health equity, health information technology and COVID-19 public health emergency response. According to HRSA, 11% of programs receive Health Center Quality Leader; 11% receive COVID-19 Public Health Champion; 54% receive Advancing HIT for Quality; and 79% receive Patient Centered Medical Home.

Aswad Walker

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...