I wake up early Monday morning to a forecast of a high of 0 and wind-chill of -20. My first thought: why do I live here? My second thought: how does someone expect me to walk around Minneapolis for the next 8 hours?
As an introduction to Global Search for Justice: Changing the Face of Homelessness, a course offered at St. Catherine University, I was mandated to participate in “A Day in the Life” hosted by St. Stephens. Going into this experience, I was aware of minimal resources throughout the Twin Cities, frequently gave to folks asking for money on my drive home, and thought I knew what homelessness looked like. Let me tell you; my mind was blown, heart was crushed, and guilt skyrocketed.
Rather than discussing statistics (check out the recently updated Wilder Foundation Research) or ideas for policy change, I would like to make others aware of what poverty and homelessness has done to the health of many in our community.
Poverty, Homelessness, and Metabolic Syndromes
From the eyes of someone who lives and breathes healthcare, this experience solidified why poverty, homelessness, and metabolic syndromes are so highly correlated with one another. Now, if you haven’t heard of metabolic syndromes or the stress response, you may have no idea how these concepts are related. I’ll explain.When your body undergoes stress (whether it be running from a bear, fighting with your spouse, or finding shelter for your family), the sympathetic nervous system is activated and the “stress response” (sometimes known as the “fight or flight”) occurs. A hormone called cortisol is released which raises blood sugar, lowers insulin production, and increases insulin resistance (is Diabetes ringing a bell here?!). In immediate situations, this system can save your life, but when it is constantly being activated, the results can be counterintuitive. In fact, chronic high levels of cortisol are known to lead to Diabetes, Heart Disease, Obesity, and Hypertension.
If there is ONE word to describe how I felt after 8 hours of Minnesota winter, navigating downtown, waiting in line for food, and figuring out where I would (hypothetically) sleep that night, it would be….STRESSED. Now, imagining that kind of life for x amount of days (not knowing is stress in itself), I can see how poverty and homelessness can lead to these devastating health concerns.
Poverty, Homelessness, Mental Illness, and Substance Abuse
I am going to go ahead and clump these two together. One reason being that I am extremely passionate about these issues and another being that they often go together like PB&J….but with moldy bread.
According to the Wilder Foundation, 55% of homeless adults report having a significant mental illness and 22% reported having substance abuse disorder. So which came first, the chicken or the egg? For all intense and purposes, I will focus on the issue of poverty and homelessness leading to substance abuse and exacerbating mental illness.
As I mentioned before, my experience of “A Day in the Life” lead me to experience a lot of emotions—one of them being stress. I know for me and many others, stress can lead to many things such as anxiety, hopelessness, depressive feelings, and an inability to concentrate. If I was to experience homelessness for even a day or two, hopelessness and exhaustion would make it difficult to turn down a drink..or two..or three. Constant hopelessness and stress can easily snowball into depression and/or anxiety and those three drinks to “just forget for the day” can easily spiral into abuse or dependence.
I believe that a lot (certainly not all) of these health concerns are direct causes of poverty and homelessness. Therefore, I don’t see these problems going away until homelessness does. Yes, we could push for no-cost/low-cost healthcare services or force people to go to treatment…but all that is doing is fixing things temporarily (and costing us A LOT of money). It’s like our *wonderful* roads—we continue to pour money and time into patching up the potholes when in reality the root of the problem is the foundation. We need to get to the roots of the problems to avoid all the baggage that comes with it.
The issue of homelessness is so convoluted; we need more transitional housing, emergency shelters, financial assistance for families, and the list goes on and on. However, what stood out to me the most in my experience through “A Day in the Life” was how homelessness can affect the physical, mental, and chemical health of people in our community. Let me tell ya, from a healthcare perspective, it is downright horrifying to witness.
My name is Makayla and I am a senior nursing student at St. Catherine University working with MN Coalition for the Homeless for my service learning experience for a course called Global Search for Justice: Changing the Face of Homelessness. Upon graduation and passing boards, I will receive my Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Registered Nursing license, as well as my Public Health Nursing license. Within the next two years, I will be starting graduate school to become a Psychiatric Mental-Health Nurse Practitioner.